- The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew has the distinction of being the "most adapted" play in the Shakespeare canon, yet the least likely to be performed "straight." Small wonder: the play's wife-taming plot, together with the heroine's curious silence about her own motivations, make it a difficult play to perform now, at least without a good deal of throat-clearing about lost historical contexts.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater's recent production of Shrew therefore received significant advance press for its bold decision to let Neil LaBute (Fat Girl, The Wicker Man) write a new Induction to replace the open-ended Christopher Sly frame. In the words of the director Josie Rourke:
I think this play has many fascinating things to say about relationships, about control, about marriage, about gender. However, because of when it was written, The Taming of the Shrew is a play in which a series of unacceptably repressive acts are committed against a woman. In putting a contemporary frame around Shakespeare's play, one of the things I am trying to do is to acknowledge the difficulties that Shrew presents to us in the twenty-first century in a way that is funny, raw and engaging.
Seldom produced in performance, the Sly frame (which shows a drunken Tinker deceived into thinking he's a Lord) is nonetheless beloved by [End Page 491] scholars, who find in it a warrant for reading the Katherine-Petruchio play against the grain. Shakespeare's frame establishes the "pleasing history" of Shrew as the ultimate in a series of illusions meant to dislodge Sly's sense of his own identity. If we read that story as a compensatory fantasy designed for a drunken Tinker with little social capital or authority; if we read it as a meditation on the distracting, destabilizing, and transforming power of theatre; if, too, we notice the panic that sets in when Sly becomes too taken with his boy-bride Bartholomew, and thus needs his attention drawn elsewhere, and quickly; perhaps then we have license to view the inner play's misogyny as, if never palatable, then at the very least complicated.
But LaBute dispenses altogether with his source's fascinating exploration of the plasticity of personal identity. Instead, his frame invites us backstage, where a contemporary Shakespeare company is about to run the tech rehearsal of Shrew (the audience enters a lit auditorium to see stagehands vacuuming and adjusting the set). The Director (a shrill Mary Beth Fisher) has cast her longtime partner in the role of Katharina (Bianca Amato). Even as the two women argue over their own relationship and the play's continued relevance—the Director defends its intrinsic worth—we discover that the philandering Katharina is having an affair with the actress playing Bianca, the latest conquest in a chain of dewy ingénues (lest there be any doubt, we catch the women kissing. Surprise!). What makes this Katharina a shrew is her inability to be faithful—or to take direction. LaBute's new "lens" therefore has us see Shrew through the Director's desire to impose her own taming ritual on a defiant actor and unfaithful girlfriend, a wish to punish directly in evidence when, blocking a scene between Kate and Petruchio which Kate clearly finds uncomfortable, the Director pulls up Kate's skirt to expose her backside to the audience.
Judging the play as a whole using Rourke's own wish that it be "raw, funny and engaging," I say here that it failed utterly, unless "lesbians can be misogynist, just...