Monday, March 17, 2014

ASF: "The Taming of the Shrew"

Ever since its debut in the 1590s, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has been controversial for its apparent misogynistic treatment of women. Was Shakespeare actually a male chauvinist, or was he merely reflecting Elizabethan assumptions, or is the play meant to be a farce-satire on marriage and male/female relationships?

Troublesome for some, and today's audiences tend to be dismayed at seeing men's presumptive control over women, let alone wagering on their own dominance of their wives...and for women apparently accepting subservient roles.

In the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's current production, director Dianna Van Fossen seems to favor the farce-satire approach, with persistent clownish elements and a myriad of humorously anachronistic references to match her updating the time and place from Renaissance Italy to 1959 in Hawaii and Alaska.

What's that, you say? Never mind. There will always be nay-sayers objecting to any concept-updates of Shakespeare; but once one buys into Ms. Van Fossen's conceit, the rampant onstage silliness is infectious, and its mockery of character types, social foibles, and attitudes about marriage, might just allow Montgomery audiences to assess how far (or not) they have advanced.

"Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best" never gave a completely accurate picture of 1950s America, no matter how comforting they might have been. Surely, the feminist movement was already underway by then, though it wasn't until the 1960s that the women's lib movement began in earnest. -- And there is all too much evidence in the daily news that there is still a lot to do to ensure equality. If we can recognize these flaws in ourselves and laugh at them, perhaps we might be on the way to a remedy.

Ms. Van Fossen has recognized that Shakespeare offers so many comic possibilities in The Taming of the Shrew: plenty of disguises resulting in comic confusion, commedia dell'arte stock characters, multiple rival lovers, and a rich battle of wits all contribute to a lively entertainment that might provoke as well as delight.

In Hawaii, wealthy Baptista [Rodney Clark] has two marriageable daughters -- sweet and pretty Bianca [Jenny Strassburg], and her elder sister, the shrewish Katherine [Paula Jon DeRose]. While Bianca has numerous suitors, Baptista has decreed she can't marry with a sizable dowry until Kate has found a willing husband. Not an easy task until Petruchio [Anthony Marble] struts in from Alaska in search of a wife, accepting the challenge of wooing Kate with the utmost macho confidence in his success. -- How appropriate it is then for Bianca's suitors to join forces in support of Petruchio and set themselves up as tutors to Bianca, insinuating themselves to get Baptista's favor.

The clownish behavior of Hortensio [Bjorn Thorstad demonstrates wonderment and befuddlement with apparent ease]; Tranio [Brik Berkes is a master of disguise with a clever assortment of voices at his disposal]; Gremio [Paul Hebron] hasn't got a chance with Bianca because of his age, but Mr. Hebron's portrayal is so sympathetically earnest that he garners deserved applause at his exit. -- Grumio is Petruchio's servant played by James Bowen as a shrewd conniving sort; and Christian Castro as the wily Biondello is a nimble bundle of energy as he tries to sort things out. -- The sheer number of "silly walks" reminiscent of the 1960s escapades of Monty Python that punctuate numerous scenes are bit annoying after a while (Python is an acquired taste, after all), but do get big responses from the audience.

And it is the sets of lovers who dominate the proceedings. -- Ms. Strassburg, for all her petulance as Bianca, changes to a more romantic partner when the disguised Lucentio [Christian Ryan] reveals his true identity. Mr. Ryan's persistent earnestness is irresistible. -- Mr. Thorstad's Hortensio manages to secure the affection of the Widow [Alice Sherman, both arch and elegant simultaneously; and her song "Try a Little Tenderness" is given in a sensitive rendition that comments on the style of love that works best].

Mr. Marble and Ms. DeRose first appear as excellent sparring partners in the initial wooing scene in Act I, exchanging verbal barbs with gusto that makes it clear they are meant for each other. As Petruchio proceeds to tame the shrew by "wooing her with good words" while subjecting her to his will, we see the gradual softening of each partner till they acknowledge each others' strength and appear unafraid of society's criticism.

Much of the controversy surrounding The Taming of the Shrew centers on Kate's speech near the end in which she lectures Bianca and the Widow [and all women] about wives' and husbands' respective roles: men are to be in charge, and women to do their bidding willingly. -- Interpretations abound, with a feminist stance being very popular today. Yet here and in keeping with Ms. Van Fossen's concept, Ms. DeRose delivers the lecture sincerely, without a mocking tone -- just a sly nod that suggests complicity between Kate and Petruchio that might just produce a solid and happy marriage between equals.