An Excellent Evening at Play
by Emily Suzanne Carter
But a moment’s contemplation of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” gives rise to a slew of meanings thrust deep into the masculine/feminine divide. The question of the play [to modern eyes] is attraction and conquest. Although scholars have long interpreted the base concern to be one of female submission to men – so the Old Bard may have intended. And, yet as the professional actresses read all the parts, male and female, a thoughtful viewer may see a humorous take on the conceit of men to suppose they control woman. For why do the men so eagerly put on false identities to woo pliant Bianca if they are so very much in control? And is she but one side of woman’s identity? Whereas Katherine wears the mask of resistance, an ancient ploy to seduction, and she attracts Petruchio, the Alpha Male, who then chases her all over the stage and lies himself silly seducing her. Aren’t men always so willing when their head(s) are in the ferment of love? Are Katherine and Bianca different faces of women as men see them – angelic and dreamy or fiery and devilish?
And why, the teasing scene in which Kate swoons for – meat? Her husband Petruchio engages with the tease, who is tamed? He for suggesting meat? Her for wanting it?
Kate’s wedding to Petruchio is a disaster – but then aren’t all weddings? The bride is beautiful, the groom shows up late, drunk and badly dressed [after a boy’s night out, perchance?]. And naturally he misbehaves, insults the priest and kisses the bride in a manner awful to behold – so say those who saw’t.
But Kate is married, bought and sold, illustrating the theme of male ownership, and Petruchio carries her off in conquest – for her money as he is not so rich as might be supposed. After espousing her, he has the money, does he really need the wife? Their wedding trip to his honeymoon castle involves falling from houses, staggering through muck, and arriving to find no meat on the table that the groom will eat as he declares a “fast.”
“Fast?!” says she. And its off to bed. No meat on the wedding night?
There is much truth and some comedy in this tale of the high expectations of bride for happiness and a groom for a receptive female.
Meanwhile back at her father’s home Bianca’s lovers vie for her love, each one enacting a greater deception than the other. And among her suitors are both young men and old, suggesting that even as they age, men remain fascinated by the feminine as well as still holding an urge to ownership through marriage.
So one has to wonder what Shakespeare is telling us? Does he not proclaim men-in-love for fools? Old fools and young?
The wild tale of wooing and lies, is greatly enhanced by the staged readings performed by professional actresses. A woman, dressed as a man, still moves like a woman – a staging that exaggerates everything comical about men seeking women. For these women know what it is to be the target of such seductions and as they portray the masculine parts, their play acting become farce. Jill Swanson, in the male lead as Petruchio, must be singled out for merit in that regard. Her every movement and expression induces triple meaning – the meaning of the words, the meaning embedded in a farcical take on men, the meaning imbued by a woman who has herself been the subject of such seductions and says in her acting, “Aren’t they silly but we do put up with them.” And that in itself is a reversal of the presumed meaning of the play – that men put up with women – either angelic or devilish.
By mounting a staged reading of “Shrew,” using only actresses, the production asks eternal questions about gender roles, social and sexual power, married relations. Are men afraid of women? Are women capable of false agreements with husbands for the sake of maintaining HIS ego and protecting her own power? Does the phrase, “faking it,” ring any bells? Or perchance the old saw, “Honey draws more flies than vinegar?”
I am not a student of Shakespeare’s work, and I saw “Taming of the Shrew” for the first time in this production, yet in our day and age of soap operas and endless analysis and television doctors pronouncing upon relationships and Jerry Seinfeld becoming a ‘marriage referee,’ I do not think it is difficult for the audience to pick up on the Old Bard’s examination of human relations.
The staged reading at The Curtain Theater is well worth the trek to that replica of William Shakespeare’s Globe theater on Lake Austin. Only two more performances are scheduled so go quickly to see Austin’s Shakespeare company of professional actresses at work – they give shine and luster to the stage. Each member of the cast shines in her role and in her role-reversal in “Shrew.”
Actresses do not have the opportunity to play at role reversals as often as male actors do – think of the films “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot.” Both of those films used fictional characters to explored gender-based social power within the larger culture at an time when women’s roles were being questioned. “Shrew,” explores gender-based personal power within the intimate arena of family.
The art in Katherine’s role, excellently played by Gwendolyn Kelso, is to make an ironic closing speech confirming to a wedding party that a wife’s place is subservient to husband. That assertion is fairly ancient stuff. But why would it resonate with the theater audience of 1695? Perhaps because the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I of England, had refused to be bedded in marriage? Yet, she was 62 when the play first ran and as uncontested as was the social power wielded by Good Queen Bess, so also uncontested were her intimate powers – she had no husband to own her. The question of female ownership was at large in the land.
Petruchio may claim ownership of Katherine and her money, but in the end he discovers that he needs her willingness to uphold his masculine pride in the face of society, and that he needs her good will as much as he needs her money. “Kiss me Kate,” he says to end the party having been thoroughly tamed himself.