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Friday, June 9, 2017

In Austin: The Taming of the Shrew with a nod to A Handmaid's Tale: Patriarchy comic and otherwise

One of the delights of being in Austin was the chance to see a staging Taming of the Shrew. We saw it at a small venue, The City Theater. The main change the director, Kevin Gates made was to cast a woman as Petruchio. Gates states in the program: 
"I wanted to experiment to casting female actors in the two leading roles. I expected that this woud make the play land very differently, but I wasn't sure how. Would the abuse be heightened or muted by the casting choice? I leave it to you to decide."
While Gates cast a woman, Shelby Miller, as Petruchio, he didn't change Petruchio's gender in the play: Petruchio didn't become Petruchia. In part because of Miller's strong acting, in part because of dramatic convention, I found myself simply suspending disbelief and accepting Miller as a male. After all, she looked like a male, was greeted as a "he" by all the characters, treated as male, dressed as a male, and had the mannerisms of a complacent, egotistical male: for all intents and purposes, the character was a male. (In contrast, I saw a Tempest last year in which Ariel was played by a woman and changed into a female within the context of the play--greeted as a "she" etc.--which made a huge difference.)

So the play became a traditional rendering of Shrew, nonetheless very well done.  Brittany Flurry, a tall, thin Keira Knightley look-alike minus the feral teeth, made an excellent Kate, convincingly fierce, while Bianca's (the sweet sister who cannot marry until Kate is wed) would-be suitors were convincingly craven in their fear of Kate and desire to marry the docile and beautiful angel of the household. Bianca herself (Angelica Elliot) made a good foil to Flurry--the two look alike, tall, thin and long limbed-- and Elliot played Bianca as crafty and manipulative, using her fluttering eyelashes and ability to play an acceptable female role to her advantage.

I have not read more than snippets of the play in many years and forgotten that the main story was staged as a play within a play, thus adding an extra layer of unreality: the framing calls into question just how much this tale of a woman subdued is fantasy--or perhaps highlights its underlying reality.

This production offered little or no rationale or explanation for Kate's personality: she simply is what she is. Does she act this way because she doesn't want to marry? Because she has been allowed to get away with it? Because something traumatic has happened to her?  While it's suggested that Kate is angry because her father favors Bianca, we don't know why her behavior is so extreme.

Her "taming," occurs as Petruchio denies her food and rest under the pretense of doing her a favor: he pretends the food and the bedding are not good enough for her, and even goes so far as to suggest they "fast" together. This is a good example of Stockholm syndrome at work: in order to survive, Kate learns (of course, with comic hyperbole) to identify with and align her views to her captor's. She quickly decided that if he says two plus two equals five she will agree and that if he then decides that two plus two equals four she will agree again.

I couldn't help but be reminded of A Handmaid's Tale. In both, patriarchy is all-powerful and women, to survive, bend themselves to the male will despite the personal cost. I especially appreciated how Shakespeare ripped the veil from the idea that those in power frame making subalterns suffer as solicitude for their "own good," rather than as a naked display of power that serves their own interests.

In the end, Kate is tamed and gives her final, public speech about woman's subordination creating the right "order" to create a harmonious society. It's cringe-worthy, reminding me strongly of the Handmaid  episode in which Offred is trotted out to talk to the Mexican diplomats about the joys of being a handmaid. It seemed to me it would have been more realistic--more of apiece with her personality-- had Kate delivered her speech with irony. But her sincere delivery and abjection were powerful: irony allows us perhaps to escape the full lash and import of the language by implying that none of this is really real. In this production, the words inspired anger: making us as angry as perhaps Shakespeare, creator of such strong females as Portia, Juliet and Hermia, wanted us to be in the face of a cruel system. Perhaps by "exaggerating" male power in this play within a play, he managed, paradoxically, to highlight how real that power was.

As an end note, I find it interesting that both Shakespeare and Jane Austen chose to show raw patriarchal power "slant" in male-female relationships. This comic approach shows the silliness of the ideology of the system, but the shying away also suggests how brutal the system really is, too brutal to reveal directly, if only because a direct approach might drive people into denial.