Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Can we begin our conversation with you telling us how you plan to approach this new, abridged production of Shrew?
David H. Bell: There's a natural and understandable prejudice about this play due to the essential storyline and the ultimate message at the end, making it difficult to stage—or to read, for that matter. And the bottom line is that I'm not sure there are politically correct ways to contemporize the show. There have been very daring modern productions—one in the Middle East, where Kate cuts her wrists and commits suicide as she is saying the lines of her infamous speech at the play's end. Not really my kind of thing, but it certainly allowed the play to have a contemporary and biting edge to it.
I chose not to contemporize our production, but to place it in a locale that clarifies it. The plot is an old plot, a plot that came from the commedia scenarios. Unlike the last two Shakespeare plays that I've directed here for Team Shakespeare [The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth], I started by embracing the long historic tradition of comedy by creating a commedia company-using masks and celebrating the eternal quality of people staging these kinds of stories. Through a framework of commedia, we actually allow ourselves distance from the central storyline by placing it in a time when we can comfortably use slapstick humor—and in fact use slapsticks, the nonrealistic comedy techniques that are part of the commedia tradition. This way, in the final speech there isn't the expectation of a realistic delivery. Instead, there's this amazing homage to the bittersweet nature of what it is to be a clown.
CST: Will you talk about the commedia tradition and how you intend to incorporate it?
DB: The story and characters of Shrew are very much in the commedia tradition, just as The Comedy of Errors is. The characters fit the commedia stock characters. Petruchio is the Capitano, Gremio is a Pantalone, the shrew is the shrew, Lucentio and Bianca are Pentralino and Pellendina [Inamorato and Inamorata], Tranio is the Arlecchino and Grumio is a Brigella. And then there's the usual assortment of Zannis and Pulcinellos that allow the storytelling of the commedia to revolve around fairly slight plots.
There is a well-known theater quote by Lope de Vega that all you need for theater is "two boards and a passion."That notion comes from the tradition of touring companies in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which would take their wagons and board them over to create a flat stage to tell stories. Commedia delle'arte comes out of folktale stories, and so it's not about the story, it's about going to see "Actor A" play his favorite Pantalone, or a famous Harlequin or the famous Capitano or Bregello. So you go to these shows to see actors play the roles they are famous for.
It is actually a lot like cinema today in that the stories change but Matthew McConahey or Tom Cruise remains Matthew McConahey or Tom Cruise. They are our form-fitted heroes and while the trappings are more sophisticated, ultimately the same set characters do the same things they always do. So in commedia, you always have something silly like "Columbina's Key" [one of the commedia scenarios], where Pantalone has locked Columbina up in the tower. The story is about how Harlequin gets the key for his master so that Pedrolino and Columbina can get together. It often ends with Harlequin, in disguise, marrying Pantelone in Columbina's place as Columbina runs off. They're real silly, fairly traditional, fairly expected storylines.
The tradition is vaguely oral, vaguely improvisational, where you walk in with a scenario, not a script, and the scenario says "then Harlequin goes to the tower and substitutes himself for Columbina, and Columbina and Pedrolino run away." Once you have the characters, the plot can be whipped up on the spot and the actors embody their characters and take ownership of all of the eccentricities of the characters. The stories are secondary. The stories are very much like The Taming of the Shrew. It's simple. It's not Hamlet, it's not The Tempest. It's something that is incredibly bite-sized. It is what you would find in a classic commedia scenario. In fact, my guess is that Shakespeare must have seen some version of this presented because it is a classic oral history, and Shrew does not have the complexity of later Shakespeare plots. Some scholars attribute Shrew as his earliest comedy. But you appreciate what Shakespeare brings to the piece, distinguishing it from all those kinds of improvisational theater pieces. I think the wooing scene is one of his best scenes in the whole cannon.
So in mitigating some of the harsher, politically incorrect aspects of this story, I think we're trying to find ways to celebrate what it is to be telling a story. We actually have created bleachers in our set and a kind of skewed "two boards and a passion" world, where our cast members will sometimes sit in the bleachers and await their entrances. Indeed, the audience of the show becomes reflective of what's happening onstage, and it is an audience of clowns who are encouraging the other clowns to horrible excesses.
CST: How do you think a contemporary audience of students will relate to the commedia style?
DB: Funny is funny. And if you think of the work of Adam Sandler or Robin Williams, while there is sometimes an intellectual component to their comedy, ultimately what people are paying money for is the fart jokes. Commedia is a world of fart jokes—or slipping on the banana peel, or any base, physical humor. Each bit of action like that is a direct derivative of the famous lazzo of the commedia tradition. Lazzi (plural) are worked out "bits" of physical business, like a stunt or gag, that are non-realistic in nature-and our Shrew will have a lot of these. We'll even have a percussionist on stage who is going to try to screw up the action. All of that is a kind of Marx Brothers gone crazy. All of the Marx Brothers' routines are based in commedia—and Adam Sandler, too, with the physically based sketches he does. So this tradition is not far from us. When you think of people who do physical bits, their comedy is directly analogous to commedia dell'arte.
For years there was a very specific interaction that children or adolescents had with cartoons. Now cartoons are much more sophisticated, but video games aren't. Video games are played with this kind of nonrealistic 'nobody gets hurt' violence that is exactly the world we're talking about. I think there's a real similarity between the world of commedia and the world of video games. And I also think that adolescents are more willing to take journeys into non-realism than people would give them credit for.
CST: In a story told through the art of commedia, will these be characters that we are going to empathize with?
DB: Oh, absolutely. We'll use masks for the minor characters only, or when characters are in disguise. But Kate and Petruchio don't wear masks, nor do the other principals. When I want the audience to really empathize with the character, they won't be wearing masks. The rest are in half-masks, not full masks, and the masks have a character but they're not grotesque. At the very opening of the show there's this wonderful set that is invaded by Pulcinellos, who look at and notice the audience, and they slowly gather and then conspire with each other in front of a curtain. When they open the curtain, what they have is frozen principals. One abstraction in the way we're telling the story is that our Pulcinellos, the clowns, are going to manipulate the principal characters and put them in as many compromising positions as they can. And they will literally pick the main characters up, carry them into the scene, put them down and set up the whole scene, before picking up the actual slapstick from commedia to make it all come to life. So it has a nonrealistic way of telling the story and celebrates what comedy is—which is, at its core, a manipulation by the storytellers.
The last time I did this show, Kate Fry approached the role of Katherina with all the complexity of a modern woman trying to deal with a variety of very specific conditions. We're not doing that this time. We are actors on a stage. We bounce. We don't hurt. Things that hit us do not sting. We do not bleed. And that is the joy of it. That doesn't mean there isn't a transcendence. We're still looking for the moments where the actor is truly affected in a moment and moved by the story, transcending the form to embody deeper themes, deeper characters, deeper emotions.
CST: You have done some of the best comedy that we have had on our stage. Can you address the question of why comedy is important? What's serious about comedy?
DB: It's our ability to laugh at our own foibles that allow us to live through the day. If you objectively look at the way we behave as a social organism, we better be comic. If you watch "The Daily Show," John Stewart finds ways to address serious political situations by pointing out the foibles of the individuals he's satirizing. Humor allows you to say things you couldn't say otherwise. Humor allows you to talk about things that you couldn't talk about otherwise. Humor allows you to think objectively about the world in which you live and not kill yourself! Those are important contributions that humor allows us.
The reason I think that the comedies I've directed can be successful is because I believe that the line between comedy and tragedy is absolutely arbitrary. Minute. In A Comedy of Errors there lives a kind of emotional tragedy just waiting to happen, and thank God it doesn't. What if they don't get together, what if everything is just ripped asunder, what if one of them gets killed, what if their father dies? All of the plot points that make Romeo and Juliet a tragedy are in place to make The Comedy of Errors a tragedy, and it's only the arbitrary tricks of nature that allow one to be comic and one to be tragic.
And in Shrew, the other side of that imaginary line is the Kate I spoke about in that Middle Eastern production at the start of our conversation, who slashes her wrists at the end because she's surrendered all sense of humanity to marry a man who absolutely subjugates her. It is the ultimate decline of free will. It costs her to tell this story; it costs her in every sense, her freedom, her determination, her sense of will, her spirit. And that is part of the story we're telling, but we are choosing to mitigate it, to soften its blow by the style in which we are telling it, but that's still the story.
CST: What period is this production set in?
DB: It's an update of sixteenth- to seventeeth-century commedia, but it is much more rooted in a timeless commedia vocabulary. It's rooted and then abstracted. It's the thing that our costume designer Ana Kuzmanik does so well. [Ana also designed the Team Shakespeare productions of The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth.]
CST: Some students will have read Shrew, others Romeo and Juliet. Can you talk briefly about the relationship between those two plays?
DB: I think it is very telling for those who are studying Romeo and Juliet that many of the same foundations of what make a comedy are very much in place. The standard commedia characters are there—you have young lovers who are absolutely determined to get together; there's a natural separation between them that they have to overcome; there's a character as a Capitano, or the Harlequin-Mercutio—who actually puts language to overcoming that obstacle; there's a masked ball where everybody gets to be somebody other than who he or she is so that ultimately they can reveal who they really are. Romeo and Juliet has all the makings of a classical Shakespearean commedia comedy, up until the moment Mercutio dies. Even then it is a comedy in that it tries to end well. The plot is in motion and all they have to do is have everything work like the clockwork. But it just goes horribly wrong. One of the tricks to making Romeo and Juliet work is to allow the comedy. It is only a hair's breath away from a story that turns out to be tragedy.