As I’ve written for years no summer in L.A. is complete without a stage sojourn to the Theatricum and this remains true as ever for 2013’s theatergoers. There’s nothing quite like seeing Shakespeare under the stars in that rustic amphitheatre nestled in Topanga Canyon. Never ones to shrink from controversy, the Theatricum has launched its 40th Anniversary Repertory Season with one of the Bard’s most contentious plays, The Taming of the Shrew.
Let me say from the outset that the mise-en-scene, which creatively makes use of the natural surroundings, the music, the period costumes (I’m always up for traveling back in time to the Renaissance) and the acting are up this equity house’s usual high standards. As Grumio the sly cross-dressing Melora Marshall humorously plays yet another male character. Raven-haired Willow Geer — who has trod the boards in many a Bard play and is arguably one of Los Angeles’ finest theater actresses — is superb as the fiery, strong-willed (and did I forget to say sexy?) Katharina. Willow can heave her bosom with the best of them, and coming up against this force of nature is another Theatricum veteran, Aaron Hendry, as Petruchio, who seeks to woo, wed and domesticate this fireball.
The troupe’s venerable Artistic Director, Ellen Geer, presides over the organized mayhem of this naughty, bawdy, rowdy farce with her usual astute aplomb. In the playbill’s “Director’s Notes” Ms. Geer — a Shakespearean expert — observes that there are “many points of view” about Shrew, which is indeed subject to interpretation. One point of view is that in this play about the eternal war between the sexes Petruchio subdues and subjugates Katharina to his will. Backstage, after the show, Hendry told this critic that Petruchio could be considered to be a “misogynist.”
In order to play up the work’s farcical aspects, the production frequently uses a small orchestra, consisting mainly of a slide whistle, to provide sound effects intended to convey comical intent and soften the blows of a debatably patriarchal folio. For this reviewer’s ears these FX went over the top and couldn’t distract from what may have been the playwright of Stratford-upon-Avon’s male chauvinist intent: Katharina’s submission to Petruchio’s grim whims.
In the story Katharina, the “shrew-ish” title character, is an acid-tongued, temperamental woman used to having and getting her way in Padua. Or, she is a proto-feminist, free spirited and determined to live life on her own terms. However, she is coerced against what appears to be her will to enter into an arranged marriage on very short notice with Petruchio. He is no gentleman from Verona, and after marrying Kate, literally uses Guantanamo-type (I kid thee not) “enhanced interrogation” methods to break her spirit, including sleep and food deprivation.
The reader may feel that, to paraphrase Queen Gertrude: “The critic doth protest too much, methinks.” To be fair to the production, Hendry does succeed in conveying a sense that Petruchio is genuinely smitten with Katharina. And when they lip lock one can sense that both characters feel a libidinal thrill, the kind of chill up the leg Chris Matthews feels when he hears Obama hold forth. (And for the record I did not feel that Hendry’s petulant Petruchio suffered from misogyny.)
However, at one point Kate shrieks at the top of her lungs that she wants to be “free!!!” Consider these wonderful lines Shakespeare gave Katharina to utter:
“Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak;
And speak I will; I am no child, no babe:
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.”
Bravo, Kate — and Willow, who poignantly, passionately delivers the dialogue! Later, with more words that Susan B. Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, et al, might applaud Katharina muses:
“…I see a woman may be made a fool,
If she had not a spirit to resist.”
Here, here — hear, hear the voice of women throughout the ages struggling for their rights, to be treated as equals, not chattel!
To be sure, the Theatricum’s version is a romp, but many of the jokes may stick in your craw. The subjugation of human beings is never a laughing matter to be taken lightly — although there are those who argue that Kate bests her loutish husband by using submissiveness as a ruse to — as ever — get her own way. But what would we say if Shakespeare had titled The Merchant of Venice “The Taming of the Jew”? Some of this tale of domination is frankly disturbing to my egalitarian, anarchistic sensibility. But as far as the Theatricum’s production goes, to paraphrase Cassius:
“The fault, dear Bard,
Is not in the staging
But in our text.”
As for 2014’s Theatricum plays, I fully expect Melora Marshall’s star turn in The Kristin Beck Story, about the transgender Navy Seal. (Only kibitzing!)
Photos: Ian Flanders
Saturday, 8 June 2013