Friday, June 10, 2016

And Now… Some Shakespeare:

“Taming of the Shrew” in DC and “Tug of War: Foreign Fire” in Chicago

In between attending the Ring Cycle I had the opportunity to attend a performance of “Taming of the Shrew” in DC performed by the Shakespeare Theater Company. Now, I will confess that if I had had another Shakespearean option I would have skipped Taming and gladly attended another play.  For while I think the play is beautifully written, as all of the plays are, it is not a play I really like very much. Yes, I know it is a farce. Shakespeare is taking on an attitude about women, a male fantasy if you will, and making fun of it.  But in the 21st century it doesn’t really come across, even in this really excellent production.  The scene where Petruchio breaks Kate feels like abuse and the final scene, especially Kate’s final speech, is simply offensive.  “Let’s see which woman will obey” – yuck!
I have read some who argue that this was the attitude in Elizabethan England and we should just accept it on its own terms.  Except, it is not. Women did not willingly obey any more in Elizabethan England than at any other time, including our own.  True, it was a patriarchal society and women were forced into various roles, but at the same time there was a woman on the throne who was arguably the most powerful woman in the world at that time. No, the attitudes in the play represent male fantasy, not reality. 
The director of this production, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, opening acknowledged the problem in his thoughtful program article. And one way he attempted to deal with it was that he determined that all the roles – male and female - would be played by men.  This, he suggested mitigated the distasteful elements of the play.  He also noted that there is a production currently playing in Central Park in New York that will use an all female cast.  He saw the two productions as a pair.  And I am sorry I cannot see the Central Park production as it would be interesting to compare. He also added some very interesting elements to further muddy the waters as it were.  But at the end of the day, the character’s genders have not changed.  The women are still supposed to be women, even if they are played by men. The violence of the breaking scene and the final scene are ultimately not mitigated by using male actors, at least not for me. Ultimately I came away from the performance slightly embarrassed that I had enjoyed it so much, for the play is really rather offensive.  I even mentioned this to a cast member in the lobby after the performance and he agreed with me.
So would I want to see the play not performed – no, absolutely not. I want to see this play done exactly the way this director did it.  With eyes open, and a desire to struggle with the difficult dimensions of the play.  For that I commend this director and the company for their work. I sensed no excuse making, but rather a clear and honest attempt to struggle with the rather difficult relationships in the play, and then to add even more difficult dimensions to them.
As the play is still running in DC I should say – SPOILER ALERT.  There was an openness to this production which I found unique and refreshing.  The cast mingled with the audience in the lobby and even performed songs before the play. During the intermission refreshments were served on stage and the audience was invited up on stage.  In a variety of ways the audience was invited to break the 4th wall and enter into the play.  And during some of these times there were subversive things going on, notably a little more than platonic relationship between Lucencio and Tranio, discovered by Bianca.  And one had the sense there was even more of this going on.  Another dimension I noticed was the relationship between the servants and masters.  In many ways these relationships were almost as abusive as the relationships between the men and the women.  What does that say about money and power?  And then adding in the subtext complications a completely different set of motivations and relationships begin to appear.  Remember that the entire plot is about money and property – it is not about love, or even about relationships or women – all of that is in service of the pursuit of money and property.  There is a subplot about lust – lust for Bianca – but ultimately the primary issue is who will become Baptista’s heir.
I want to complain about one director decision that I thought did not work. I understand that he wanted the establishment characters of Gremio, Hortensio and the wealthy Contessa to be somewhat representative of power bases in society and so Gremio becomes a Catholic Cardinal.  Except that Gremio is openly pursuing Bianca like the others.  He is just as lustful and desirous to marry her as all the others.  Ok, a Cardinal can be lustful, but to be openly a candidate for her hand in marriage just didn’t work.  He is a Cardinal, which means he is supposed to be celibate. Even in the Middle Ages high ranking churchmen worked harder to hide their assignations than this.  This didn’t work for me.  I don’t think having him being a churchman at all was necessary and added nothing. That is my only complaint.
The cast was excellent. The Kate of Maulik Pancholy was really terrific as was the Bianca of Oliver Thornton.  I had seen Telly Leung in Godspell on Broadway about 5 years ago and was really impressed and he was terrific as Lucencio also. Tom Story was outstanding as Hortensio, with equally outstanding work from Matthew Russell and Gregory Linington as the put upon servants Tranio and Grumio. Bernard White as the plotting father of the women Baptista was effective and I enjoyed the many incarnations of André De Shields.  Finally Peter Gadiot played the unsympathetic role (at least for me) of Petruchio and I can’t imagine it being performed more effectively.  The entire company was excellent.  This is a terrific production and performance.
Lastly, I have to mention that one of the unique elements of this production was the addition of original songs by Duncan Sheik. This added a unique dimension which I felt really worked.  At times it felt like a musical, the cast were all excellent singers and the songs were beautiful and effective.  In this way the music added yet another dimension of commentary and complication to the plot.  This was not a 2 dimensional “Taming;” all of these elements came together to create a complicated set of odd relationships.

Oliver Thornton as Bianca and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina

A few weeks later I travelled to Chicago to my 2nd favorite place on earth – Navy Pier – for 5+ hours of Shakespeare in the form of a montage entitled Tug of War: Foreign Fire.  Created by Barbara Gaines, director of Chicago Shakespeare, this long evening consisted of three plays: Edward III, Henry V and Henry VI, part 1.  These were cut to focus on the war-making dimensions and to fit into 5 to 6 hours of Shakespeare. The primary focus of this 1st part of Tug of War were the English wars against the French in an effort to win the rule of France during the Hundred Years War. In these wars there are the elites who make the decisions, often based on flimsy and questionable foundations, there are the commoners who are the ones who bear the primary burden of the fighting and the dying and there are the women who are also used as chess pieces in the complex back and forth between fighting and diplomacy. Edward III rescues the Countess of Salisbury from the Scottish only to attack her by attempting to coerce her into a sexual relationship. She resists (in one of the most wrenching and powerful scenes in the entire play – performed powerfully by Karen Aldrich as the Countess and Freddie Stevenson as Edward). Her success in shunning the King forces his response in commencing the brutal wars against the French that ends ultimately in the French defeat and deaths of 1000’s at Crecy and Poitiers. I had never seen Edward III before, and it is still somewhat contested.  I suppose this will be my only opportunity to see it, and I really loved the play.  It does bear some interesting parallels to Henry V.
Henry V is also cut to focus exclusively on war-making.  John Tufts’ Henry was not as sympathetic and likeable as most Henry’s. After a magnificent exposition of the Salic laws, delivered brilliantly by Steven Sutliffe as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry is engaged in the act of war on the French.  One of the most moving and poignant dimensions was having the Ghost of Edward III watching as events unfold and then repeating lines from the first play that perfectly parallel lines from Henry V during the Harfleur scene.  The brutality and cruelty is something the two Kings have in common. No nationalistic romp this production – the “Band of Brothers” speech was anything but inspiring.  Rather, yet another effort at manipulation coming as it does on the heels of the King’s rather self-serving wanderings through the camp where he argues his righteousness with his own soldiers.  Finally we have Princess Katherine used as a bargaining chip.  I felt that this scene was anything but cute and seductive, rather, it felt violent to me.  Katherine attacked to be taken as used, much like Petruchio’s Kate is taken and used.  But here it is in the service of a peace that will actually never take hold.
And the King dies young and is succeeded by his infant son and the entire French possessions are lost and in the process of regaining them we encounter a new woman, a warlike woman – Joan of Arc.  Played powerfully by Heidi Kettenring this is a woman who can stand up to men, who is as strong as any man and who has to be destroyed.  All the while a weak and pious Henry VI, played by Steven Sutliffe attempts to avoid conflict as his counselors are fighting bitterly with each other.  This play serves as a hinge from the French wars to the English turning in on themselves and beginning the civil war between the white and red roses – the houses of York and Lancaster (all descended, BTW, from Edward III).  This then sets up the next installment in the fall – Tug of War: Civil Strife which will include Henry VI, parts 2 and 3 and Richard III.
It is obvious that Gaines is making a statement about the stupidity and futility of war and violence.  She is also, not so subtly pointing out that while the men who make the decisions stand above the fray, on various levels of scaffolding looking down on the bloodshed and carnage, it is the poor foot soldiers who do the work of fighting and dying, by the 1000’s! (It is not an accident, I think, that both Edward III and Henry V, both include a lingering uncomfortable scene where they read a list of the killed and lost). It is also the women who are the chattel and are used and abused in this chess game of war, and who sometimes (like the Queen in an actual chess game) becomes a player herself (Margaret of Anjou, for example).  And for what, for a throne which is elusive and unstable (symbolized brilliantly by a golden tire hanging and lit in full view throughout the entire play.)  The final dimension is the music.  A rock band which plays and sings a series of songs about war and war-making serves as both participant and commentary on the action.
As is typical of the incredible work of Barbara Gaines there are so many little details that add so much to the performance.  My favorite: a young boy being given a hat to keep him warm by his mother as he leaves for the wars.  This cap continues to be featured in a variety of ways until it is finally returned to the mother, without the boy.  It was a moving symbol of the incredible cost of this kind of war-making.
I cannot even begin to pick out and name the incredible cast for this marathon venture.  As usual Gaines’ cast is tremendous, each and every one of them.  Larry Yando, Kevin Gudahl, Karen Aldrige, Heidi Kettenring, James Newcomb and Michael Aaron Lindner (who provided the only really effective comic relief of the adventure with his outstanding Fluellen) are all veterans of Chicago Shakespeare. New actors included Freddie Stevenson’s incredibly powerful and dangerous Edward III, John Tufts as his grandson the equally powerful and self-centered Henry V (no nice guy Hal, or even Falstaff to mitigate this character – there was a brief nod to this whole subplot when Henry momentarily reacted to the news that Pistol would be hung, but it was over in a moment.  After all those who break the rules must pay no matter who they are – that is if they are poor peasants!). And then there was Alex Weisman, whose youthful, almost childlike looks brought an incredible power to his scenes as Talbot’s son, and the boy with the cap.

I am really looking forward to the last installment in the fall.  This is an incredibly powerful work.  Hats off to Barbara Gaines.  The evening of the performance I attended there were cameras all over. I can only hope that they are recording this for television or some kind of release.  Shakespeare’s insights about war and war-making are just as relevant today as they were in his own time.  If only the war-makers would pay attention.
A video montage of Tug of War: Foreign Fire - Note the use of the paper crowns!

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