Susannah Rogers and Elijah Alexander in SHREW!
Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew from the 1623 First Folio.
Tales of shrewish wives and besieged husbands predate Shakespeare by at least two centuries—and some scholars have traced them back to antiquity. One of the Wakefield mystery plays (from a medieval play cycle) focuses on Noah and the flood and derives slapstick humor from Noah’s interactions with his harridan of a wife. Early in the play, she steps forward and addresses the women in the audience, complaining about her “ill husband” and threatening to smite him; to which Noah responds, “Hold thy tongue, ram-skit, or I shall make thee still”—whereupon he smacks her. His wife, no shrinking violet, hits him back, using a strap for added emphasis. Presumably this flesh-and-blood version of a Punch-and-Judy routine delighted 15th-century audiences.
By the time Shakespeare turned his attention to writing The Taming of the Shrew (around 1592), he apparently recognized that the archaic story and its low, rough-hewn humor needed some reconsideration. His play goes a long way toward humanizing its title character, Katherine; and instead of physical violence, her new husband, Petruchio, employs a kind of psychological behavior modification to correct her ill-mannered nonconformity and turn her into an obedient wife.
But because the play was one of Shakespeare’s earliest, it lacks the sophisticated character modeling of his later work; and there’s no escaping the misogynistic tendencies of the men in the play. Elizabethan England was a decidedly patriarchal society and Shakespeare’s play reinforces the prevailing attitude that women were inferior and must always submit themselves to the will of their fathers and husbands.
Which makes the play problematic for our own time, when macho posturing is no longer considered a winning attribute and equality of the sexes is a widely professed (if not so widely achieved) ideal. The Taming of the Shrew still gets produced with some frequency—and audiences still enjoy much of its playful jousting—but rarely, if ever, is it done without some attempt to soften its sexism and mitigate its machismo. Still, various kinds of directorial legerdemain and actorly performance choices have mostly found the play resistant to correction—a bit like trying to subdue a bull in a china shop by means of a lace handkerchief.
SHREW! Playwright Amy Freed and Director Art Manke.
Now, Amy Freed has decided to take that bull by the horns. In SHREW!, she has written her own version of Shakespeare’s play, retaining the basic contours of its story and characters, leaving it nominally in the world of 16th-century Italy, but rethinking the central relationship between Kate and Petruchio and allowing them to find their way to a different kind of rapprochement, one that doesn’t require the subjugation of one to the other.
Kate is still a headstrong young woman when we first meet her. She chafes at the restrictions placed upon her by society. She longs to have the same rights and privileges as men—especially the rights to education and self-determination. She’s smarter than most of the men in her world and sees no reason why she should be less free than they are to make her own choices and find her own way.
Her sister, Bianca, is much more conventionally feminine, making her the favorite of their father, Baptista—but Bianca’s carnal desires are threatening to get her into trouble, leaving Baptista, a widower, to bemoan his fatherly fate. His daughters are out of control —each in her own way—and he’d like nothing better than to marry them both off, so they can become the problems of other men.
Bianca has no shortage of suitors, but no man in his right mind would want anything to do with the shrewish elder sister, Kate. Which is why Petruchio’s arrival on the scene would seem to be a god-send; for while Petruchio has many a manly virtue, there is reason to believe he may not quite be in his right mind.
A battle-scarred soldier who still hasn’t entirely gotten over the death of his first wife, Petruchio has finally decided it’s time to find a new mate and, when he hears about Kate, he’s not at all put off by the description of her abusive manners. On the contrary, the more he hears, the more interested he becomes—and he secretly hopes that this wild-hearted woman might find a way to tame the wildness in his own heart.
And so he sets out to woo her—which doesn’t exactly go according to plan, but Kate’s unpredictability only deepens Petruchio’s interest … and similarly, his unconventional approach to winning her approval disarms Kate, although she’ll be the last to admit it.
Meanwhile, three different suitors try to take advantage of the opening created by Petruchio’s arrival to win the hand of the lovely Bianca. Two of the suitors disguise themselves as tutors in order to gain access to Bianca—in fact, disguise is one of the main comic devices in the play, which both indulges in and acknowledges the absurdity of the ruses employed. By midway through the play, Kate and Petruchio are married, but his work has only just begun, as Kate continues to rebel against the idea of surrendering herself to any man. Once he gets Kate to his cold, forbidding castle, Petruchio sets out to convince his new wife that he has her best interests at heart. If you know Freed’s offbeat sense of humor (this is her seventh play to be presented at SCR), you may not be surprised to learn that, in her version of the story, Petruchio’s strategy involves dwarves, tea, a friendly dog … and an ode to olive oil.
As for Bianca and her suitors, the ruses pile up on themselves until the winner claims his prize—and then begins to wonder if she may not be such a prize after all. Like Shakespeare’s, Freed’s version of the play ends with a double wedding … and, somewhat surprisingly, a speech from Kate to the other newlyweds, imparting her new-found wisdom about what makes for a successful, happy relationship.
As she demonstrated in her break-out hit, The Beard of Avon, Freed has an ear for Shakespearean language. While SHREW! in most respects sounds and looks like a Shakespeare play, in fact at least 90% of its language—including both verse and prose— is Freed’s. So too is her take on Shakespeare’s clown characters who, as reimagined by Freed, have one foot in medieval jesting and one foot in present-day foolery.
Directing SCR’s world premiere of SHREW! is Freed’s long-time friend and collaborator, Art Manke, an SCR veteran. Manke has assembled a 13-member cast that might be called “The Freed Players,” as most of them have appeared in previous works by the playwright —most notably Danny Sheie, who played the title roles in both You, Nero and The Monster Builder at SCR; and Susannah Rogers, who also appeared in The Monster Builder. Learn more about the cast.
If the set for SHREW! looks somewhat familiar, it’s because designer Ralph Funicello has adapted his set from SCR’s previous production, Shakespeare in Love. In that earlier play, the scenic design was inspired by the typical elements of Elizabethan theatre; in SHREW!, the look is patterned on the architecture of Renaissance Italy; but both sets acknowledge the influence of Shakespearean stagecraft. Costumes for SHREW! are designed by David Kay Mickelsen; lighting is by Jaymi Lee Smith; and the music and soundscape have been created by Steven Cahill—all of whom are frequent SCR collaborators.
Amy Freed’s SHREW! is first and foremost a romp, one that takes delight in its own absurdities. But beneath the theatrical horseplay is a 21st-century playwright’s reconsideration—part homage, part gentle corrective —of one of the young Shakespeare’s early investigations into the mysteries of romantic relationships. It acknowledges—as the more mature Shakespeare would in so many of his plays—that both men and women are much too complicated to be reduced to Punch-and-Judy types … and that true love requires both sexes to discover and embrace each other’s complexities.
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