Andrew McNee & Jennifer Lines, The Taming of the Shrew (2019) Photo & Image Design: Emily Cooper. (Courtesy Bard on the Beach)
“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” – Katherine
My never-ending quest as a high school English teacher is to persuade other teachers, often much younger than myself, to read, teach, live Shakespeare with their students. My argument for doing so is always the same; he knew what it meant to be human, not only in his time but through all time. That is why the themes in his plays inspire everything from The Lion King to Game of Thrones (minus season 8. Don’t get me started.).
The Taming of the Shrew is no different even if the perceived controversy of the content raises the ire of some once again. The players at Bard on the Beach have done a masterful job of displaying a story not for controversy’s sake, but to contravene conventions that are prominent in many parts of 21st century society.
This year’s Shrew production, set in the Wild West town of 1870s Padua City, directed by the hilarious Lois Anderson moves through the saloon to the streets to the house of the wealthy Minola family where Lady Minola (Susinn McFarlen) seeks to marry off her two daughters Katherine (Jennifer Lines) and Bianca (Kate Besworth).
While the younger Bianca has no trouble courting suitors, tradition dictates the elder Katherine must be married first in order for her younger sister to get hitched.
Katherine, however, is not the amiable sort and has been labeled the “Shrew” by the townsfolk. Two suitors Gremio (Scott Bellis) and Hortensio (Anton Lipovetsky) both have eyes for Bianca and wager that whoever finds a match for the shrewish Katherine will win the hand of Bianca. At the same time the nobleman Lucentio rides into town, spies Bianca, falls hard for her, and disguises himself as a tutor in order to gain access to the Minola house and woo his fair maiden. Yet all these lusty gentlemen pursue Bianca in vain as long as Katherine remains unmarried and fortunately for them, in rides Petruchio (Andrew McNee). He is a man in search of money and therefore needs little convincing by Hortensio to tame the shrewish Kate.
Having seen many productions from Bard on the Beach, it brought me joy to see another comedy produced to the high bar this company of players sets every year. Lipovetsky was particularly clever with his timing and the partnership of Lines and McNee carried the story. The Taming of the Shrew is a must see on the main stage for its charm and humour and performances and most importantly, for a message that is particularly poignant.
While the idea of a woman being chastised into submission by a brutish man is repugnant, Shakespeare used subtly and subversion of societal values to get his point across.
This production emphasizes the oppressive nature of strict gender roles and male authority as well as shows how people learn humility in a true partnership.
The patriarchy in Padua City is an example of what many today wish for and name as “the good old days” or a “simpler time” when women had their place and men had their jobs to do. Critics of the status quo are deemed outsiders, liberal, rebels, and in the case of a female critic, a shrew. While a man who asked questions was listened to and argued with, a woman disruptor was shrill, unhinged, attacked through ridicule. At the beginning of the play, one never had any doubt that Kate was an outsider as the chants of “shrew, shrew, shrew,” followed her across the stage.
Petruchio enters as a man like the others and targets Katherine as a woman to conquer to his will. Yet as they battle and their fierce wills clash over and over, both find a gentler side of themselves through an affection for each other.
Credit director Anderson for crafting the tender moments between Petruchio and Katherine that are for the audiences’ eyes only and not a part of the act they put on for the townspeople. The performance Kate and Petruchio put on for the people at the end is the finishing stroke in Shakespeare’s destruction of the patriarchy and its rules. Instead of seeing Kate as being broken and submitting to Petruchio, the two of them have taken the others for fools and played their game to take their wealth and in the end, come away rich and together while the other two couples are broke and miserable.
What the men had wanted so much was made a mockery of, and they dug in their pockets to bet against it. What we might called a culture of “toxic masculinity” was laid bare as the men (and ladies) desperately wanted to see Katherine submit to her man, yet bet their fortunes against it happening because they had labeled her a shrew and could not believe their judgments could be wrong. It was quite satisfying to feel the sarcasm in Katherine’s final speech, her waspish sting, and relish the irony of men wanting to maintain dominance and being dominated by her words.
It is a message directed towards the human heart in that the harder it is, the more resistant to change, the further we travel down the road to misery.
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