Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Shakespeare Riots

I heard a great story on NPR this morning about frontier productions of Shakespeare in 19th century America and a New York riot that resulted from a production of "Hamlet." I highly recommend giving it a listen for a small window into the theater world of more than a hundred years ago. It also is the first of three shows that Morning Edition will be doing on Shakespeare. Tomorrow: the infamous authorship question!

This serves as a great lead-in to talking about the production of “The Taming of the Shrew” that I saw in South Carolina. I went to this show with very low expectations; my experiences with out-of-town not-major-market Shakespeare have not been good, with a particularly hideous Colorado Springs production of “Titus Andronicus” still assaulting my memory. Luckily for me, there ended up being many exceptional things about this production.

The venue was charming. The Warehouse Theatre is a very nice, unassuming black box theater just a block away from the main downtown park area of Greenville. It’s kind of stuck on the end of a bunch of other shops and such but it has a great glass fa├žade and the performance space is more than roomy enough.

This was at least the fourth, possibly the fifth, different production of “Shrew” that I’ve seen and yet it was the first I’ve seen that I remember including the Induction scenes with Christopher Sly. I expect these are usually cut to trim the show’s length. Including these scenes – and paying significant attention to them – is one of many interesting-though-not-entirely-successful choices made by the production’s director, Jayce Tromsness with the Distracted Globe Theatre Company. He also includes many bits of entr’act business involving the ensemble in clown garb. While the first couple of these are amusing, they diminish in impact in the second act and become nearly annoying by the end.

The main highlights of the production were an excellent Kate (Jennifer Goff) and an over-the-top hilarious Petruchio (Jason Shipman). Tromsness found many unexpected places in the script to cultivate for humor and Shipman maximized their impact fabulously. Shipman will be added to my list of itinerant folks to keep an eye out for. He is a gifted comic actor.

But to return to the Induction scenes: Tromsness uses the story of Sly to frame the Kate-Petruchio story in a way that sheds a different light on aspects of the plot that seem inherently sexist to the modern audience. It was hard for me to figure out if this different light was supposed to be ironic or just ridiculous. It’s a valiant effort to diffuse the problematic elements of the play but it causes problems of its own. The main one is that, if the framing device is supposed to be ironic, it undermines the sense of true affection that develops between Kate and Petruchio during the course of the play.

As thorny as the sexism is in “Shrew,” most productions I have seen deal with it by trying to communicate a sense of an authentic bond between the lead couple (in stark contrast to the more ephemeral or utilitarian couplings of the other characters). Tromsness tries a different and intriguing course of action. It’s great to be challenged by a different strategy and the result ended up being exceptionally entertaining.

3 comments:

Keri Wormald said...

I would like to weigh in on both comments you mention that were made by "anon."

First, I'm as guilty as the next director of wanting to work repeatedly with actors I know can deliver the goods, but I've always made an effort to find at least one "FRESH FACE" in every show I do. i.e., At the Barksdale when I recently worked with Irene Ziegler (and shouldn't she be working all the time really?), re-imported Duke Lafoon FROM NY, and worked (for the first time myself) with now Barksdale favorite Katherine Louis, I also cast newcomer Maggie Roop... who is NOW probably one of the people anon would describe as over-exposed. Newcomers in Richmond and NY plug away until they get cast. It has been EVER THUS. New talent is always breaking in, but it happens so gradually, the average play-goer doesn't notice it! (And it would be nice if regional theatre paid so well there could be more cross-pollination with other regional theatres, but it's just not feasible). Richmond actors generally have day jobs.

As to the second comment... much of what passes for "good NY theatre" is not so much "good" as it is "NY." The off-Broadway production of Bat Boy, for example was execrable. It could not touch the fun of the Firehouse Production. That's just one example.

Richmonders who are brilliantly talented often go to NY and do not make it because they are not as adept at marketing themselves, as you mention, or they suffer from rotten luck. A notable exception, I can report here, is Doreen Barnard who is an overnight NY success after just 13 short years. She is strutting her stuff in the national tour of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. She was a regular cast member of Richmond: Out Of Stock and would be talented in Richmond, NY, or Poughkeepsie. Glad to see though that she's finally going to have a credit that impresses people.

--Keri Wormald

And Doreen's show is coming to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer so I'll get to see it!

antic disposition said...

Thnks for the comments. I agree with you about the induction scene. I had acted in a production years ago that used it and was always interested in what it could do to the overall play. Shrew is a troublesome play nowadays. I too found myself wondering if we were killing the possibility of a real connection between K & P. Honestly, their chemistry together surprised all of us. In the end, I don't think anyone can "gloss" over or "tame" down the misogyny as it most probably was intended and yet, I think, over-done for a purpose. While I'm sure the Elizabethans applauded Kate's transformation, they also, I think, would have seen Petruchio as an over-drawn stock commedia character. Certainly there is no textual support for our combining Sly with Petruchio, but we were also not the first to do so. Many productions (the Jonathan Priyce version in particular)tried this. A lot of scholars become ill at the very mention of this conceit and I can't say I blame them. Again, we felt it was worth a try and that if we could shed any light, and illuminate the text from any other perspective, then we were doing a service to it if only to show how much dabbling Shakespeare's texts can tolerate. Thanks again for taking the time to not only come see the show but to talk about it. Come see us again and stay around for a cup of coffee or a beer.

Cheers-
Jayce Tromsness

Dave T said...

Mr. Tromsness!
So glad you've stumbled upon this space and thanks for your comments. I fear that in the brevity of my post on your production of "Shrew" that I did not truly do it justice. I want to add that, not only did you find surprising comic business for Mr. Shipman, but also for others as well. Like another excellent production of "Shrew" I saw several years ago (directed by Rick St. Peter), the imprint of the director was evident in your show and reflected a literate, creative, and inspired understanding of a play that can pose some thorny problems. You assembled a fine cast and used them well. I hope to have the opportunity to see more of your work in the future and will be sure and hang out afterwards to chat.
Best,
Dave