Monday 11 June 2012

Good (albeit slightly uneven) outing at Bard with Shrew

Zoom Spot :  Director Meg Roe had the right idea how to make Taming of the Shrew more palatable to contemporary sensibilities. Her audience is well-tuned-in to feminism and the increasingly prominent GLBT sexual culture, after all.  Solution ? Slapstick! this 400-year-old script, slapstick it bigtime. Lots of nods and winks directly at the audience, call Mantua “Montreal”, inject a slew of pratfalls both real and metaphorical. But mostly let lead Lois Anderson as Kate fully exaggerate her amygdala. Let her be Princess Bitch of the ages. She's two cats fighting in the alley all by herself. Pure comic stuff that Anderson aces. It works because slapstick is but irony writ large. The only *message* to take away is this : “None of our silly shenanigans are to be taken at face value!”  Where the current production is true to that game plan, the play wings along cleverly. Kayvon Kelly as Grumio, Shawn Macdonald as Gremio and newby Anton Lipovetsky as Lucentio all execute wonderfully well. Never do these characters spiel off Billy Bard’s words with even a soupcon of face-value denotation. As Petruchio, however, John Murphy resorts to rote-recitation too often, alas. The switch is not all his fault, for sure -- BillyB's contradictory characterization of Petruchio as a "kill her with kindness wife abuser" doesn't help. Worse yet, Kate's final speech : a fine mess indeed. On balance, however, Shrew is another fun Vancouver summer evening with English Bay and the twinkly lights of the West End as Bard's signature backdrop. Add in the omnipresent rainstorms, street sirens, and medic helicopters going Whumpa! Whumpa! overhead as they race toward downtown hospitals, and you come away satisfied this first play of the 23rd season in the tents with Bard gives you, on balance, decent bang for the consumer buck.


I was hoping for a nuanced representation for contemporary eyes from Meg Roe's direction of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Some recognition, say, that this is not just male chauvinist piggery writ large (see Preview below). More emphasis how bully-vs- bully morphs into lover-to-lover.

Roe’s version asks you to suspend your biases about political correctness and face the fact that Kate has as little emotional intelligence as Petruchio. Two psychosocial misfits who stumble and bumble into one another : both greedy, one for power, the other for security. They find each other. And maybe swap life roles in the process.

Fact is Kate treats her sister Bianca no better than Petruchio treats Kate herself : lots of sarcasm, dismissive disdain, physical violence. Whether in Shakespeare’s patriarchal culture or today’s GLBT world, such conduct is not much to giggle at. Unless it’s slapstick. Unless the bullying crosses gender stereotypes and applies to all two-legged creatures regardless of sex.

In slapstick, as the word implies, people bop and boff one another, just like the Three Stooges four centuries later. They smart-mouth and smart-ass each other. They hoodwink each other. They seduce each other.  Shrew should never be looked at as a précis of universal moral “truths” -- just a goofy, edgy play on manners-of-the-day meant to be taken 100% frivolously, both then and now.

Further along these lines – skip ahead if this bores you – Shrew was written at the end of the 16th century A.D.  It was conceived as spunky ironic fun on the wholly Christian turf of England.  Whether closet Catholic or eager Anglican, Billy Bard was surely steeped in the 10th Commandment from Exodus 20:17 : “Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”  The operative word being “thing”.  To Petruchio, Kate is a “thing”. And for his part Petruchio may be anatomically and metaphorically both an "a" and "p", but in Kate’s patriarchal time he was “it” -- her meal ticket and guarantor of a squishy life. Simple as that. So it’s the sexual energy between “thing” and “it” that makes this play still relevant, whatever the times. 

From the opening scene, Lois Anderson’s Kate has a voice that either wilts flowers or shatters glass. Unlike the film version as portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t bosom forth with fake rage at 150 decibels.  Anderson “finesses” Kate’s shrillness nicely. For his part, Petruchio (John Murphy) can’t find a core identity like Richard Burton did in the film with his sardonic and lecherous heh-heh-heh laugh constant throughout. Between Roe’s direction and Shakespeare’s lurchy script for this character, Mr. Murphy can’t seem to decide whether he’s ironic wit or macho pig or just faintly bored much of the time. His delivery of lines oscillates constantly as among these personna such that there’s no “person” at the end of it all, only role-playing.

But for all the foreplay, as it were, most disappointing of all was the final soliloquy by Anderson as Kate. Why Roe had her deliver it straight-up, with not a whiff of triumphant irony, is simply beyond me.  To make Shrew really work in 2012, Kate's speech has to project this sentiment : “We two have found each other because I am as bad-to-the-bone as you are.  The only difference is I recognize it, so I can suck up to you and laugh at you while you are still stuck being you. Yet in some perverse way I think I love you. You jerk.”

Had Kate's previous stage business not been superior, I would agree 100% with GBS (see Preview below) that her final speech -- taken at face value -- can't help but offend ear and eye in equal measure.  How else to respond to her invite to Petruchio -- I'll paraphrase -- to "let my hand be squashed beneath thy foot, O lord and master"...? 


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