Some hastily scrawled thoughts after a Sunday Matinee performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew by Edmonton’s Freewill Players.
I must start here:
The Taming of the Shrew is a fundamentally misogynistic piece of art. Even more than the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice, the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew is woven throughout. In fact, brutal misogyny is the point of the play – without it, the three female characters and dozen or so male would stand silently on the stage for a few hours. The Taming of the Shrew is the explicitly approving story of the breaking of a strong woman through violence, starvation and sleep deprivation until she, like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, in the finale of the play, at the command of her abuser, turns on the two other women and lectures them about how their natural role is to abase themselves to their husbands. Kate is so destroyed that she happily denies the evidence of her own eyes at the maliciously arbitrary command of her abuser.
Needless to say, The Taming of the Shrew is an uncomfortable and painful comedy for any modern audience member who has ever had a mother.
Now with that – not out of the way – it should never by out of the way – but having been said I am going to argue that the Freewill Players have turned the seriously daunting challenges of a contemporary production of The Taming of the Shrew into powerfully explored opportunities. And they’ve done a remarkable job of bringing Shrew to the emergency indoor stage at the University of Alberta’s Myer Horowitz Theatre. After a freak windstorm destroyed the canopy of the Heritage Amphitheatre, Freewill had to find a new venue on extremely short notice, at unforeseen cost, and with the forced reduction of the Festival to a single play.
The Players have cut from Shrew the frame story involving Christopher Sly and replaced it with an hilariously scripted and choreographed opening of the actors – as themselves but somehow still in character – preparing the stage and explaining why the’re inside instead of out amongst the squirrels and mosquitos. This opening was made even more real and surreal for me by the fact that thirty minutes before curtain I stood beside Julien Arnold, the ostensibly always-snacking actor, at the bagel place outside the theatre. He still had his bike helmet on. I think he was snacking.
The simple set design by Narda McCarroll of a few movable crates stencilled with the Freewill logo, four aluminium step ladders, a big red door, and a few wall sections, is marvellously versatile. The ladders added a reminder that the production had something of the emergency makeshift about it. But when Arnold as the Merchant of Mantua, is atop one of the ladders in his crazy Garibaldi wig and fake beard, we believe he’s shouting from an upper story window. And we also believe he’s craving a snack.
The entire cast joins in with the set changes, also providing a bright and cheery “Bumby bum bum” musical accompaniment (Sound Designer Dave Clarke’s work is brilliant) as chairs, ladders, tables and trays of liquor swirl about the stage in a way both magical and do-it-yourself. The production is full of quiet reminders that this company, cast and crew, has pulled together and risen to the emergency, that they’re all in it together.
James Macdonald gives a relaxed, strong, nuanced performance as Petruchio, the Shrew Tamer. His Petruchio clearly truly comes to love Kate (Mary Hulbert) even while he continues to “tame” her with what we would call “torture”. Hulbert is gloriously physical and cerebral as Kate, pummelling all who cross her with fists and wit. Bobbi Goddard as Kate’s sister, Bianca, makes clear that the younger is cut from the same cloth as the older sister, but Bianca is all dishonest sunshine and politeness if a man’s eye is upon her, whereas Kate is always brutally honest. The various servants and suitors and travellers and fathers, two of whom have almost identical names, two of whom exchange identities (sort of) and two of whom take on false identities are all carefully distinguished and what can be a mess of confusion for the audience is kept crystal clear by the Players.
And the music! Stand out musical performances come from Mary Hulbert in her opening solo of “O mio babbino caro” and Sheldon Elter’s (Tranio) performance on voice and ukulele leading the entire cast on “It’s Now or Never”. The music which struck me initially as least successful was Nathan Cuckow (Hortensio) and Bobbi Goddard’s Hip-Hop rendition of “Hortensio’s Gamut” (Shakespearean rap?), but then . . .
(Maybe it’s getting a bad rap, but) Hip-Hop is often seen as a misogynistic sector of pop culture. Perhaps this moment of Shakespeare’s words set to a rap beat is a bit of a mirror held up to the audience, a little reminder that we aren’t the utopia of sexual equality we might like to think we are. “Oh, my dear father,” Kate sings before that father sells her sister to the highest bidder and her to the only man who’ll have her. At one point during the final wedding feast, there are twelve men on stage and no women. And then, Elter is joined by everyone in what must be seen as a powerful statement to our still unequal society, reflected in the casual misogyny of Shakespeare’s time, that indeed, It’s Now or Never. The entire play is a mirror!
The Freewill Players, with Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne directing, have achieved something remarkable. They have taken what seems to be an irredeemably misogynistic early play of Shakespeare and presented it to a modern audience as a gentle or not so gentle challenge, as an urge to conversation, and as a powerful demonstration of the joyful power of cooperative effort. And, we laugh. And, we are moved by Kate’s closing speech in defence of a social order that today seems odious. Kate and Bianca and the disturbingly nameless Widow who marries Hortensio are strong women in a society which reviles strong women. In the performances of Hulbert and Goddard and Annette Loiselle they are admirable in their strength. And Hulbert makes us believe, not that Kate has made the morally correct decision, but that her submission is the only course open to her and that by submitting she may retain some small amount of control. An uncomfortable conclusion for a contemporary audience, but a reminder that most women in the world today, heroic, strong women, including in Western countries, remain in Petruchio’s Taming School.
If there is to be change, truly, It’s Now or Never.
Freewill Players production of The Taming of the Shrew continues at the Myer Horowitz Theatre until July 27, 2014.
And a reminder:
The sudden loss of the Heritage Amphitheatre canopy, while repairable, has had a catastrophic impact on the Freewill Players’ financial situation. The fact that Shakespeare is performed outdoors in the middle of our city with trees and grass and water and squirrels and the occasional thunder storm makes Edmonton a better place to live. Shakespeare’s plays, even the most problematic of them, are always worth experiencing. When performed by a company as willing to engage deeply with the text, to take risks, and with the skill, talent and courage to rise to face whatever slings and arrows outrageous fortune sends their way, the Stage – whatever stage – truly becomes All the World. The Freewill Players have done exactly this for twenty-six summers now. But the twenty-sixth has been a huge financial challenge. If a twenty-seventh Freewill Festival somehow didn’t happen, Edmonton would be a horribly poorer place.
Please consider seeing The Taming of the Shrew. Please consider donating, even just once or with monthly donations through the Goodwill for Freewill Campaign.