I'm directing a gender swapped production of Taming of the Shrew being done in Arlington on March 22, 28 and 29. We've got the men playing the women's parts and vice versa. Some people view Shrew as a misogynistic, outdated play. The experiment I wanted to try was whether by swapping the roles it becomes simply a love story between two socially maladjusted people. While I expected this to be interesting, I have been fascinated at what swapping the genders has done. In the hope that some of you will come see it, I won't say more so your own experience won't be tainted one way or the other.I was really intrigued, so Cate and I went last night. [Verse and Vodka's website; tickets to this show via Brown Paper Tickets]
However, (a) they didn't genderswap the opening frame story (which confused me because I was expecting gender-swap); and (b) they kept all the language intact (so it's all, "your sister Bianca," etc.), which I think lessened a lot of the impact of the gender swap.
Given the LJ post, I was expecting the gender swap to do more than I experienced it actually doing. Petruchio was great -- and the genderswap enables some stuff one couldn't do in standard productions (like, I think it was the first wooing scene, Kate is sitting down and Petruchio sits on her lap, straddling her, which I think would have read much differently if it were a male-presenting person on top of a female-presenting person) -- but mostly I felt like I was just watching any other production of Shakespeare (possibly in part because my brain has gotten somewhat used to parsing people as their character even when that is ostensibly at odds with the gender I'm reading them as).
In the frame story (which I always forget exists), they put a guy in a dress, and when the drunk !lord was wanting to hook up with the "woman" and "she" was putting him off, I felt super-uncomfortable because the expectation is that the audience is laughing because they know that if the guy does get under "her" skirt he'll realize she has a penis and won't that be a terrible shock and ha ha ha -- and hey, that's a very real fear that lots and lots of trans women live with every day. I've read lots of trans women pushing back about the "guy in a dress as humor" trope, but I don't think I actually internalized it until that moment.
When I think about this play, I so want to read Petruchio/Kate as a consensual BDSM relationship, and in the first "wooing" scene it feels plausible; but then when Petruchio is keeping her from eating or sleeping it's clear that Kate hasn't consented to this dynamic and while I understand how we're supposed to parse Petruchio's plan, it makes me uncomfortable -- and as it continues with the sun/moon etc. thing on the way back, to think of it as leading up to a consensual BDSM relationship makes me think of lots of sketchy narratives wherein the guy dominates the woman without her consent and she ends up liking it (despite her expectations) and that somehow retroactively makes his boundary-crossing behavior okay.
I also didn't get much sense in this production of Kate herself coming to be sort of in on the joke -- she does during the encounter with the old man after the sun/moon bit, and Petruchio's whispering to her at some point (I forget if it was during that scene or the closing scene), but while I want to read Kate's final speech as her being super over-the-top saying shit she doesn't believe to just piss off all these other women, I didn't really get that sense from this scene.
They don't close out the frame story, and I was thinking about what the (existence of the) frame story suggests about the main play (reversals, illusions, etc.), but I wasn't really coming up with anything -- so I went to Wikipedia, as one does.
Which wasn't helpful for this specifically, but which did quote [RSC] director Conall Morrison:
By the time you get to the last scene all of the men – including her father are saying – it's amazing how you crushed that person. It's amazing how you lobotomised her. And they're betting on the women as though they are dogs in a race or horses. It's reduced to that. And it's all about money and the level of power. [...] It is so self-evidently repellent that I don't believe for a second that Shakespeare is espousing this. And I don't believe for a second that the man who would be interested in Benedict and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet and all these strong lovers would have some misogynist aberration. It's very obviously a satire on this male behaviour and a cautionary taleI found this interesting because I know I didn't even think about the contest from that one-level-back perspective or about the implications of everyone's glee at Kate's having been tamed.
My Riverside Shakespeare (2nd Edition) says:
Northrop Frye once remarked that the Katherina of Act I is not really dissimilar from the Katherina of Act V; at the beginning of the comedy she is persecuting her sister Bianca, and at the end she is engaged in precisely the same activity---except that now she has learned how to do it with social approval on her side. (Anne Barton, p. 139)and
the stage convention which allows the actress playing the part to show plainluy in her face that she falls in love with Petruchio the moment she sets eyes on him has much to recommend it. Heartily sick of a single life, not to mention all the adulation showered on Bianca, she is really more than ready to give herself to a man but, imprisoned within a set of aggressive attitudes which have become habitual, has not the fainest idea how to do so. (Ibid)I think one of my difficulties with Kate's trajectory through the play is that I know so little about her pre-Petruchio. We see her fighting with Bianca, but we know almost nothing about either of them. We're told that Kate is shrewish bladdy blah in a way that suggests she acts like that to everyone and has for a while. Offstage she breaks the lute (of the tutor who's just there to woo her sister, so possibly she's not just being peevish for the sake of being peevish...). We don't really know why she's so upset at Bianca -- when she's asking Bianca which suitor Bianca wants to marry and Bianca's all, "Whichever you want to marry you can have," there's lots of room for Bianca to play that in various ways (is she refusing to answer Kate's question to provoke her? does she really desire Kate's happiness, as a plain reading of the text would suggest?) and this production just played it as a plan reading of the text, so we get no insight into why Kate is so upset with Bianca, and Bianca herself remains flat and uninteresting. (Not that I'm saying you have to stage this scene against the plain reading of the text in order to make sense of Kate's crankiness at Bianca or in order to make Bianca and interesting and/or complex character, just that this scene is one of your only opportunities to do so -- well certainly for the former; admittedly we do see Bianca with the tutors picking a favorite and participating in a ruse, so she's not entirely the flat paragon of passive virtue that the early scenes might suggest.)
My Riverside also says of Petruchio's "taming" of Kate:
he goes on assuring her, despite everything she can do and say to prove the contrary, that she herself is gentle, rational, and loving: exactly the hidden qualities in her that he needs to foster and encourage. Petruchio wins in the end not because of superior force but because he succeeds in showing Katherina both the unloveliness of the false personality she has adopted and the emotional truth of the self she has submerged. (139)I don't buy that, because whatever he actually believes about her (and I do think he genuinely likes/cares about her), all this rhapsodizing about her is entirely enmeshed with the "taming" such that everything he says to her feels false or cheap or insincere or IDK the exact adjective I'm looking for here.
The Riverside also says of Bianca: "Once married to Lucentio, she ceases to be 'sweet Bianca.' At the wedding feast itself she reveals an unexpected streak of bawdry, willfulness, and arrogance" (140), which I thought was interesting -- I think we tend to have a fairly flat impression of Bianca (because there's not much there there), and we interrogate Kate's closing speech to the exclusion of interrogating anything else about that closing scene (and I include myself in that "we").
More details about this particular performance:
The Verse and Vodka website says, "Our shows are performed semi-staged with scripts in hand and actors moving among the audience," but I hadn't really looked at the website in advance, so I was thrown by the fact that the actors had scripts in hand. They mostly did well, but there were definitely moments where I felt like it would have been a lot stronger if the actors had memorized all their lines already.
In the opening framing scene, Chaz (as the servant) totally steals the show with lots of playful body language, etc. In general, the servants are the ones who get the most mileage out of their performances in this. Tranio is hot (and because this is community theatre rather than college theatre, I could hit on the actors without being creepy -- though I didn't actually choose to) and totally owns being her master (and when Lucentio is first like, "So I killed a man..." she's great at the silent, "What are you doing?!" -- oh, and initially when Lucentio proposes that she take over being him, she's all "no way," which surprised me, but IIRC it's the moment when Lucentio lists "servants" as things Tranio can have in his stead that Tranio perks up [and yes, I know, they're both female actors playing male parts -- but using different pronouns for them felt an easy way to have all the pronoun referents remain easily followable]). Grumio (Petruchio's servant) didn't steal the show but was cute in an "I would ask you out" kind of way. Biondello had a blonde pontyail and a pink Wellesley sweatshirt over like a cheerleading outfit -- all pink -- and totally had the sort of Valley Girl mannerisms (but not over-the-top, which I appreciated). When Lucentio first shows up, she's taking lots of selfies, which I thought was a nice modern touch (and also one of the few explicit nods to the gender-swap -- not that guys don't take selfies when they vacation, but this was staged in very stereotypically female kind of way).
Listening to the list of what Petruchio's wearing to the wedding, I wondered if any production ever does the entire list -- but when Petruchio and entourage walked in in Mardi Gras beads and deely-boppers &c., I felt it was an acceptable interpretation of the text -- and they sang Beyonce's "Single Ladies" (and had the audience sing along -- the way this production was staged, the characters were often commenting to the audience from the periphery of the scenes, which I thought was good use of this physical setup).
Speaking of Petruchio, I also loved that once he'd decided to marry Kate, any time any character would talk about the sisters and mention Kate, he was all, "Yeah, but don't go after her, she's already spoken for," (mostly just mouthing or gesturing -- a la the side commentary mentioned above) to which of course everyone is like, "As if I would, you weirdo..."