Saturday, September 23, 2017

Chicago Shakespeare – Taming of the Shrew

I will confess that in the entire Shakespearean canon there are two plays that I do not like: 1. Titus Andronicus (too much gratuitous violence); and 2. Taming of the Shrew. I understand of course that TotS reflects its times to a large extent and that the play is actually more complex than the impression of misogyny that most folks tend to assume is at the heart of the play.  In fact, few realize that Shakespeare himself put the play in a kind of frame, the Christopher Sly frame which turns the play into a practical joke on this particular character.  But the character all but disappears, though there is an ending where he wakes up from his drunken stupor having had “the best dream” ever and has learned how to deal with his “shrewish wife." This of course is comedic tongue in cheek as this guy will never learn to deal with women at all.  But the major problem is that most productions of the play completely eliminate this framing device, leaving the play within the play (TotS) to stand on its own, which it doesn’t do very well (IMHO).  For without the framing device we might actually think Shakespeare is serious in advocating for spousal abuse, when he really isn’t. But since this is the way the play is usually performed it does make the play a hard one to take. From the marriage negotiations to the wedding to the after the wedding “training” to the final “contest” to Kate’s final speech - this play is downright offensive.
So initially when I saw that Chicago Shakespeare would be performing TotS I figured I would skip it.  It wasn’t that long ago that I saw a fine production of the play in Washington D.C. with an all male cast, and while it would be interesting to see with an all female cast, especially as directed by the brilliant Barbara Gaines, it is such a long trip I just figured that I would pass.  That is, until I realized that this production would include a framing device.  Not the original “Christopher Sly” one, but rather one created by the writer Ron West along with Gaines.  Now, back about 10 years ago I had one of the most amazing theater experiences of my life at Chicago Shakespeare when I attended a production of “Comedy of Errors” with a framing device by Ron West.  That one set the filming of the play within the context of the bombing of London during World War II and without going into so much detail that it would completely take me away from the focus on TofS let me just say, it was outstanding!
So for this production West and Gaines set the production of the play within the context of a Chicago Women’s Club in 1919.  These clubs actually existed and were popular places for women to come together for social and educational experiences.  The producing of Shakespeare was, in fact, a popular activity undertaken by some of these clubs.  At the same time the women’s suffrage movement was heating up.  This becomes a major point in this production.  The women who are members of this club, and who will take on the roles in TofS, are all affected in some way by the suffrage movement.  Some are supportive, some are not and some are ambivalent – at least at the beginning of the play.  But as the “dress rehearsal” progresses – in the parlor because the rains have flooded their theater – the riots and demonstrations in support of women's suffrage become a major part of the context and have a profound impact on the women involved.
I do not want to spoil things, so I will refrain from any detailed discussion of the production, except for this one example.  At the end of act one (Act 3.2) Petruchio has this terrible speech in which he tells the group in Baptista's house that his new wife Kate: … is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything… Following this speech Petruchio picks up the hostile Kate (in the traditional manner) and slings her over his shoulder and takes her out and off stage.  They did that here too, but because they are in the parlor they have no place to go except out the front door of the clubhouse.  And so as they walk out onto the street there is a suffrage riot taking place into which the two characters walk.  At that moment we hear a male voice from the street yell “Get back to the kitchen!”  This pretty much clears the parlor as all of the women then rush out to join the protest.  End of act 1.  I have to say, I found this exceptionally profound and effective.  It is so easy to dismiss Petruchio as somehow unique in the lists of wife abusers, or of the scene and speech as being only a “reflection” of the times and not really relevant anymore.  But this isn’t true.  It may well be a reflection of the times in which it was composed, but anyone who thinks it isn’t also a reflection of our own times has their head in the sand.  Women have made some progress – but not enough and they are still subject to abuse, both emotional and physical (See my discussion of the musical "Carousel" immediately below).  This production does not shy away from these issues at all and through this device confronted all of us with them.  And throughout the remainder of the play there was commentary and the women themselves undergo a transformation.  It is a terrific way of doing this play.  And lest I give the wrong impression, it is highly entertaining and very funny in places as well.
The cast is simply terrific.  Casting was colorblind and there was not a weak link in the cast at all! By the way, each member of the cast played a member of the club who also played a character in the club’s production of TotS.  And so the Magnificent E. Faye Butler played Dr. Fannie Emmanuel who played the girl's father Baptista.  Other standouts for me were Tina Gluschenko who played the wavering and cautious chairwoman Mrs. Beatrice Welles who played Hotensio; Cindy Gold who played the rather stuck up and put upon Mrs. Sarah Willoughby who played a hilarious Vincentio; Alexandra Henrickson who played a very self-centered, insensitive and rather weak willed Mrs. Louise Harrison who was absolutely magnificent as the shrew Kate; Heidi Kettering who played one of the leaders of the club and was particularly good at mediating conflicts between the women as Mrs. Dorothy Mercer and was excellent as the scheming and manipulative Tranio; Crystal Lucas-Perry as a quiet but deeply committed Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne who as incredibly affective as the harsh and abusive Petruchio; Rita Rehn as the Senator’s wife who is the social center of the club as Mrs. Mildred Sherman who is also very domineering and judgmental, and who is also the mother of Mrs. Emily Ingersol - Bianca (played by Olivia Washington) who is the rather dutiful and submissive daughter of Mrs. Sherman, who in the play takes on the role of Grumio and the Widow (Interesting to note that Mrs. Sherman serves as kind of the director of the play, in the same way that the character playing one of the twin servants in the previous West frame for “Comedy of Errors” also was the director – I smell a pattern).  Then there was the outstanding Kate Marie Smith who played the young, somewhat naïve and progressive Miss Olivia Twist who played the role of Lucentio (magnificently by the way); and finally I cannot leave out Hollis Resnik as the club’s caustic and cynical custodian Miss Judith Smith who took on the role of Gremio.  The remaining ensemble included Faith Servant, Ann James and Lillian Castillo.  This is a really interesting mix of women of differing ages, races and experience and Barbara Gaines molded them into a terrific ensemble.  For ultimately this work is even more of an ensemble piece than it would be otherwise.

I don’t want to ruin this for anyone who might be planning to see it – as it runs into November.  So I won’t say anything more.  Except, I loved the end.  I found it deeply moving and I, as a privileged white male, did not leave the theater feeling judged, but rather even more committed to justice and equality than I was before.  My last comment is this – to Barbara Gaines and Ron West: Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your incredible work.  Please, please, please make it available to other companies so that these frames can be used and experienced more widely.  I would like to see this Taming frame adopted on a regular basis personally.  And 2ndly – please tape this production and make it available.  I will personally buy multiple copies to give to my friends!

 The Set

Front and center in this photo are the three principals: (left to right) Crystal Lucas-Perry as Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne (Petruchio), Alexandra Henrickson as Mrs. Louise Harrison (Katherine or Kate), and Rita Rehn as Mrs. Mildred Sherman (Grumio/Widow)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Carousel and Domestic Violence

I need to write about this for this issue has bothered me ever since I attended a performance of the Rogers and Hammerstein “Carousel” at Union Ave. Opera at the end of July.  I am not going to talk about the production (much).  Frankly, I felt there were lots of problems with it but particular production is not really relevant to my concern.  The issue is deeply embedded in the “book.”

First preliminary comment: I love the musical.  I was in it as a child as one of the bratty “Snow” children.  I have very, very happy memories of that show.  My dad was in it – in the chorus and he was the police officer in the crucial scene where Billy and Jigger’s plan goes awry.  So, I got to do this with my dad and it was really fun.  And then there was Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia that is a wonderful place.  And then there was the incredible carousel itself used most prominently in the opening prologue. And I got to ride on it!  And then there is the music.  I can hardly get through any production of Carousel without crying during some of the songs – “If I Loved You,” “When You Walk Through A Storm,” “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “When the Children Are Asleep!”  Wonderful songs all of them and the instrumental prologue and ballet sequences are musically brilliant – perhaps among Roger’s best compositions!

Second preliminary comment: I work as a Lutheran Pastor in a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I have been a Pastor for 30+ years.  In my role as pastor I often – far too often - encounter women (and children at times) who have been or who are the subject of domestic abuse.  Sometimes this takes the form of verbal or emotional abuse; sometimes neglect and sometimes actual physical abuse.  I have seen the effect it has.  How it destroys everyone who is involved, but especially the victim.  I have absolutely no sympathy for abusers.  It is wrong!  It is evil!  You have no right to abuse your wife or children in any way!  Marriage must be based on respect and trust.  There can be no respect and trust when there is any kind of abuse. Period!  Sometimes an abused wife will ask me: “But what about my vows before God?”  The first time he hit you – the first time he verbally abused you, put you down, called you names - HE broke HIS vows and broke the bonds of trust and respect! A woman who is abused needs to get out.  And getting out is simply accepting the break that has already occurred through HIS action. And to that end I support any number of shelters and agencies for women who need a safe place.

To the issue at hand – the “book” of Carousel: 
Louise Bigelow: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that - real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie Jordan: It is possible dear, for someone to hit youhit you hard, and it not hurt at all. (See Footnote #1)
 Julie is wrong - NO it is not possible! Love never makes abuse ok!  Julie spends all of her married life as an abused woman.  No matter what his issues, or whether we might want to agree with Carrie and Julie’s other friends that Billy is bad news and that she shouldn’t have married him and she ought to leave him, nevertheless, the heart wants what the heart wants and Julie loves Billy.  But he treats her like crap! And by the middle of the first act everyone knows that Billy’s verbal and emotional abuse has turned to physical abuse. 
Starcatcher: … So then why did you beat her?
Billy: I didn’t beat her.  I hit her once!
Typical excuse.  “I only hit her once.  It wasn’t hard.  She deserved it.  She was nagging me!” Billy has lots of excuses. He actually admits at one point that he gets angry because Julie is right!  But none of those excuses hold a drop of water.  He hit her! He is guilty of physical abuse!  And physical abuse is never ok!  But I find the act 2 exchange between the 16-year-old troubled Louise and her mother Julie to be the most troubling in the musical. Julie, in this exchange, is passing on her victimhood to her daughter Louise. Julie’s answer sets up her young daughter to continue the cycle of abuse into the next generation and beyond. This is what I find so disturbing about this “book.” (See footnote number #2)
(Footnote #1 – To be fair, Hammerstein essentially lifted this exchange from Molnár’s play “Lilliom” – in the play Louise tells her mother that the man (the dead Lillion, her father she never met) hit her hard and it felt like a kiss.  Is that possible?  Julie responds that yes it is possible.  The play is from 1909.)
 (Footnote #2 - By the way, in case you are not familiar with the plot - Louise is the daughter with whom Julie is pregnant at the end of act 1 and to whom Billy has come back from the dead to visit – the visit doesn’t go well, he scares her and he gets angry and hits her! – The role of Louise, by the way, was shared and beautifully performed at UAO by dancer Emma Gassett and actor Caylee McGlasson)  

So what is the answer? I am not advocating the shelving of this beautiful musical.  Not in the least!  I believe that is the wrong thing to do. Do I think that Oscar Hammerstein or Richard Rogers for that matter were somehow glorifying domestic abuse? Actually, I don’t. I think Hammerstein in particular was a very astute and keen observer of culture and frankly the domestic abuse is an essential part of the story, which he takes almost directly from Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s “Lilliom” (Except for the ending). There is simply no way to excise it from the show. But, bear in mind that Rogers and Hammerstein were not afraid to deal with controversial subject matter – for example, racism in “South Pacific,” or cultural imperialism in “King and I.”

A couple years ago I attended a performance of “King and I” at the Lincoln Center Theater. They did not shy away from the issues of cultural imperialism, but rather they addressed these issues in an upfront and proactive manner. This is, I believe at least one solution.  When a company chooses to mount the musical “Carousel” I believe they should take it upon themselves to address this issue in the same manner. Don’t ignore it, or treat it like it is, well, unremarkable, just a part of the show.  The director or company manager or conductor could write an article for the program addressing the issue.  Or the company could raise funds for a local shelter, sponsor discussions at intermission or before the show about the serious epidemic of domestic abuse.  Now, I’m don’t mean to single out Union Ave Opera, who generally do great productions, because, frankly, I attended a beautiful production of this “Carousel” at Lyric Opera of Chicago a couple years ago and they didn’t do anything either.  In both cases these were missed opportunities to perhaps save someone from the cycle of abuse, and maybe even to save a life. 

In closing, great art like opera, theater, musicals address the experience of being human in all its beauty and ugliness.  Maybe it is time for companies to be just a little more proactive in confronting some of these serious issues.

If you know someone who is being abused or if you need help:
Crisis Hotline Numbers in Southern Illinois:
St. Clair County – 618-235-0892
Monroe County – 618-939-8114
East St. Louis – 618-875-7970

Randolph County – 618-826-5959