A company of actors, in the midst of "tech" rehearsal, prepares for a production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, soon to open. The Director and the actress playing Kate have been partners, personally and professionally, for years. The Director confronts "Kate’s" promiscuous behavior with the actress playing the role of Bianca. The two women argue about the nature of their partnership and their two, very different interpretations of commitment. As they rehearse, members of the cast react to the issues that Shakespeare’s play evokes in a twenty-first century context.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
(SETTING: SIXTEENTH-CENTURY ITALY)
In Padua, Italy, a wealthy merchant named Baptista is resolved: his lovely daughter Bianca will not be wed until her elder sister, Katharina "the curs’d," is married off. The field of frustrated suitors for Bianca is crowded already with gentlemen like Hortensio and Gremio, when Lucentio arrives in town to pursue his studies—but with one look at Baptista’s treasure he leaves all learning behind. To gain access to Bianca, Hortensio dons the robes of a music teacher; Lucentio disguises himself as a tutor, passing off his own identity, clothes and all, to his servant Tranio. Just when it seems Bianca will never be free to wed, another suitor shows up. His name is Petruchio—an adventurer undeterred by danger, and one determined to shore up his financial future through marriage...to Baptista’s eldest.
After a sudden and stormy courtship, Petruchio manages to escort his "Kate" down the aisle, and sets out to tame his new wife. By outbidding Gremio, Tranio manages to convince Baptista that he (that is, Lucentio, whose clothes he wears) is the man for Bianca. When Baptista requires assurance from the young man’s father, a suitable imposter is found to play that part, as well, and yet one more disguise baffles Baptista—not to mention Lucentio’s real father, who arrives in Padua at just the wrong moment. In the end, true identities are revealed, three marriages are celebrated, and a wager is placed as the newlyweds roll the dice on married life.
One of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, ca. 1592–94, The Taming of the Shrew did not appear in print until the First Folio was published in 1623. Shakespeare’s play, unadapted, remained popular at least into the 1630s when it was printed again as a separate "quarto"—equivalent to a paperback book. The Taming of a Shrew, a play published anonymously in 1594 and once considered Shakespeare’s primary source, has come to be understood by scholars as a poor pirated copy of Shakespeare’s own play. "A Shrew" includes a more sustained version of the so-called "Sly frame," which in Shakespeare sets the stage for a company of actors to present The Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare’s play remained popular into the 1630s, when John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as resident playwright for the King’s Men, offered a sequel titled The Woman’s Prize or the Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio suffers "taming" by his second wife, who uses sexual denial to challenge his views of marriage. Between 1663, when Shakespeare’s version of The Taming of the Shrew last appeared on London’s stage as an "old revival," and 1844, when it was again restaged in its original, Shakespeare’s text disappeared in performance for nearly two centuries, replaced by various adaptations. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has proved as popular as it is controversial, being the most frequently adapted play in the canon, from the 1716 version of The Cobbler of Preston (starring Christopher Sly...) to Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and, more recently, the teen film and TV series, 10 Things I Hate about You.
The Taming of the Shrew holds the record as the most frequently performed Shakespeare play that is most seldom performed in its entirety. Most stage and screen productions cut Shakespeare’s Induction and its frame story of a character named Christopher Sly completely. When the Christopher Sly frame is included, The Taming of the Shrew becomes a play-within-a-play, designed to entertain a drunken tinker who is tricked into thinking that he is a lord.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production retains the concept of the frame, reworking it for our world as we encounter a group of contemporary actors staging a spot-on sixteenth-century production of Shakespeare’s Shrew. The resulting script may be innovative, but the concept of reworking this play is not. Internationally renowned playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute replaces Shakespeare’s Lord of the Manor with a character named by the function she serves—the play’s Director, who enjoins her Kate to "tackle the problems of a text that’s outdated by looking them squarely in the eye."
With a drunken tinker in a starring role, Shakespeare’s frame narrative quickly tends toward the earthy; so does the new one at Chicago Shakespeare. The bawdry of the frame narrative in both instances is resoundingly echoed in the play proper, where Petruchio famously baits Katharina—petulantly calling for his departure after a duet about her "waspishness"—with the line, "What, with my tongue in your tail?" The line zips across the centuries to us, its frisson of salaciousness flawlessly intact (but hardly tactful).
Shakespeare, of course, would have depicted a male actor in the role of Katharina, repeatedly enjoined by the male actor playing Petruchio to "Kiss me, Kate"—a stage direction that is clearly followed. LaBute’s frame reverses the gender of the kissing couple, showing us two women kissing one another; and, as in Shakespeare’s play, Kate is resistant to the public staging of this intimate act. Shakespeare’s Induction, like the play itself, makes private business between a couple public. So, too, in LaBute’s frame developed for this production, which stages a couple’s ugliest intimate moments both to an onstage audience of other actors and to the theater audience.
Perhaps The Taming of the Shrew poses problems not because it is "outdated" at all, but because it still holds a mirror up to our natures, showing us things that we would rather not see. Shakespeare seems to have been consistently drawn to the most troubling aspects of his world; he seemed to know, as we should, that the things we would rather not see are the precise things to which we should devote the most attention.
Creating the new scenes that frame CST’s production, Neil LaBute is one of the most prolific, challenging and provocative stage and screen writer/directors working today. All of his ongoing fascinations, as well as more than a decade of exploring them in major and minor films and plays produced on and off Broadway in New York and London to significant acclaim, are evident in the new frame LaBute has written for CST’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. Nearly all of the ten feature and TV movies and eleven plays he has written and/or directed (Bash: Latter-Day Plays, The Mercy Seat, Fat Pig, Some Girls, Reasons to Be Pretty, Nurse Betty, Possession, The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace and Death at a Funeral, released worldwide this spring by Sony Pictures) share characteristics that make each easily identifiable as his: an incessant desire to push boundaries and test the limits of taste and, decorum; a profound fascination with the dark side of human nature, with the moral vapidity of contemporary men and women; and with the politics of sexual power and desire, both sanctioned and transgressive.
– CST gratefully acknowledges scholars Regina Buccola and Stephen Bennett for their contributions to the Playgoer's Guide.
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