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 façade 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.