Whoever he really was, the shade of William Shakespeare must quail every time a stage director concocts some “new” way of presenting his work. Much has been said, and written, about “The Question” implicit in The Taming of the Shrew — by which I assume is meant, “What is the Bard saying about women?” In the case of Burning Coal Theatre Company’s current offering, directed by Jerome Davis, the real question should be: Isn’t the play — isn’t Shakespeare generally — difficult enough to stage and perform without the imposition of a cryptic (and inconsistent) conceptual overlay?
Not that the masculine/feminine dynamic is incidental. A modern audience can find the chauvinist implications of the play as daunting, and unsettling, as the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In the case of Shrew, it may be noted that this is a very early work in the canon. The willfully subservient position of Katharina at the close, untenable to us, is years (and in terms of the playwright’s eventual mastery of characterization, miles) removed from the resolute rebelliousness of Juliet; the sober maturity of Portia; the ardent acerbity of Beatrice; the androgynous determination of Rosalind; the loyalty and innocence of Desdemona, Ophelia, and Cordelia; the bloody cunning of Lady Macbeth; the resolve of Cleopatra; or the spirituality and devotion of Isabella — women no one would tame, try as they might. Katharina is something of a special case. Her subjugation (not to mention humiliation) by Petruchio is rather above and beyond. (Which may have something to do with Davis’ casting of a woman in the role of the servant Tranio — at least one female on the stage is free and comparatively independent.)
An aside: I must confess here to a preference for the Cole Porter/Sam and Bella Spewak re-imagination of the play as Kiss Me, Kate over the original. It’s just as hard-edged, farcical, and risqué as its source (Porter’s lyrics are among the most cheerfully filthy ever heard on a Broadway stage), but somehow more agreeable and benign — maybe because it’s about show business people, whom no one takes seriously anyway. And it’s difficult now to hear some of Shakespeare’s lines without humming Porter’s accompaniments in your mind.
The central misogyny of the play may be worth coming to terms with dramatically. But Davis’ Zen and Japanese theater approach is less a working out of these issues than the imposition of a “concept.” An elaborate prologue, with Katharina in lotus position, the servants (all young women here) striking defensive Tai Chi attitudes and the entire company prayerfully intoning, or mumbling, Kate’s “I am ashamed that women are so simple” speech (at least, I think that’s what it was; I also heard a trace of “Tijuana Taxi” in the lugubrious musical accompaniment) suggests a radical interpretation that is never followed up on. True, Sonya Drum’s scenic design consists of a frame and sliding screens a la Kabuki, a Japanese sand garden and paper lanterns, whereas Maggie Clifton’s costumes include tunics from the Samurai era (or Samurai by way of George Lucas anyway), characters spend the evening in bare feet and drink from saki cups, rice is brought forth in serving bowls, and Petruchio (dressed elsewhere like an Allied fighter pilot — the Occidental intruder in the Oriental mix?) is brought on for the wedding in a rickshaw. But the surface skin is as deep as this Mikadization goes.
Sadly, the performances are largely just as epidermal, with the radiant exception of Liz Beckham’s Tranio and the all-too-brief professionalism of Bob Barr’s Vincentio. Nick Berg Barnes is a variable Petruchio, comfortable with the verse and amusing when he isn’t too pleased with himself, and while the redoubtable Debra Gillingham is game, Katharina — as she has so many others — finally defeats her, too. There might be a lesson in that.
TTR Editor’s note: From time to time, two of our critics disagree on the relative merits of a production. This is one of those times. — R.W.M.
The current Burning Coal Theatre Company modern-dress, barefoot presentation of The Taming of the Shrew — staged Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 2nd in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC — is a fresh new take on William Shakespeare’s epic Battle of the Sexes.
Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis employs a Japanese motif for the externals, which include scenic designer Sonya Drum’s stylish set, with its sliding panels at the rear and central sandbox in which the childish adults throw their temper tantrums, and costume designer Maggie Clifton’s eye-catching costumes for everyone, except Petruchio, who dresses in a brown bomber jacket, khakis, and work boots. Davis opens the show with Wilmington actress Debra Gillingham as Katharina (Kate), the notorious “froward,” peevish, ill-tempered title character of the piece, chanting her famous “I am ashamed that women are so simple” speech of submission that closes the show as a Zen-like mantra — and the other actors join in Kate’s chant.
New York actor and native Londoner Nick Berg Barnes, who plays, perhaps, Western drama’s biggest Male Chauvinist Pig, reminds us of a bigger, much brawnier Dudley Moore as he cheerfully swaggers around the set, with his eyes sparkling and a stinging insult on his tongue, and he inflicts humiliation after humiliation on the proud Kate and the groveling Grumio (a cringing, hunchbacked characterization by Luke Custer) and the rest of his dull-witted servants. Although she looks tired, with circles under her eyes, Gillingham gives a spirited performance as Kate the Cursed, lacerating her enemies with her waspish tongue and hurling herself at all who antagonize her, claws extended cat-like.
In a brilliant piece of cross-gender casting, Liz Beckham portrays Tranio, the upstart servant of Lucentio (Ryan Lee), with admirable spunk and wit. Lee has less to do, except look lovelorn, as the hopelessly smitten swain who pretends to be a bookish schoolteacher and woos and finally wins Kate’s beautiful but shallow sister Bianca (Heather Hackford). Lucentio outshines and outmaneuvers her Bianca’s other, equally ardent — but less resourceful — suitors, Gremio (Jason Weeks) and Hortensio (Stephen LeTrent).
To borrow a term from Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King, Bianca is “daddy’s little puddyface,” the favorite daughter who can do no wrong, whereas Bianca’s older, plainer sister Kate seemingly can do no right in her dad’s eyes. So, when the young men start to line up on the family doorstep, to compete for Bianca’s fickle affections, their father Baptista (Phil Crone) insists that his beloved youngest daughter will not wed until a suitable mate is found for his eldest daughter, the unhappy and disagreeable Kate. Then in walks Petruchio, in search of a fortune and a challenge, and the play’s plot thickens.
Heather Hackford is amusing as Bianca, Jason Weeks and Stephen LeTrent are funny as Bianca’s bickering suitors, and Phil Crone is the epitome of the autocratic yet affectionate father. Bob Barr (Vincentio), David Coulter (Pedant), Ian Finley (Biondello), and Danijela Lazarevic (The Widow) also make the most of their fleeting moments in the spotlight so skillfully wielded by lighting designer Cindy Limauro.
In giving us a Shrew for our times, in which woman are more liberated than their 16th century Italian sisters whose chattel status made them little more than slaves to the men in their lives, director Jerry Davis makes some big gambles — most of which pay off — and this high-energy ensemble, led by Nick Berg Barnes and Debra Gillingham, make this two-and-a-half hour show rewarding for its audience.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents The Taming of the Shrew Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 21-24 and Sept. 28-Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday and groups of 10 or more and $16 Thursday-Sunday ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel). 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Tickets%20for%20SHREW.htm [inactive 8/07]. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Shakespeare Resources: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/shakespeare/ [inactive 3/10]. E-Text: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaTamF.html (First Folio, 1623) and http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MobTami.html (Globe Edition, 1866).
Burning Coal Theatre Company will present the ultimate Battle of the Sexes, The Taming of the Shrew by English dramatist William Shakespeare (1584-1616), Sept. 15-Oct. 2 in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC. Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis will direct an all-star cast that includes British actor Nick Berg Barnes as the male-chauvinist-pig fortune-hunter Petruchio and Wilmington, NC actress Debra Gillingham as Katharina (Kate), the temperamental eldest daughter of a wealthy Padua family and the seething object of Petruchio’s unwanted amorous overtures.
First produced in 1593-94, this 16th century story of Love Italian Style is based on English playwright George Gascoigne’s 1566 comedy Supposes, which is in itself an English version of Italian dramatist Ludovico Ariosto’s 1509 comedy I suppositi.
“I played Petruchio at 17,” recalls Jerry Davis. “Not a good idea, but I figured ‘What the heck?’ I got to wear tights and swing on a huge, knotted rope. That combination also turned out to be not such a good idea, but that’s a story I’d prefer to leave at rest, thank you.”
Davis says, “I still have nightmares about that production. The actor’s nightmare — a classic — with my own personal twist. In my dream, I am running around backstage on opening night frantically looking for a copy of the script. Everyone keeps telling me: ‘We’ve been off book for weeks. Why would we have a script?’
“The nightmare wasn’t far from the truth,” Davis says. “It took me a week to memorize the first page. I did a little better afterward, and managed to stagger through the four-performance run. The first thing my acting teacher said to me in college is ‘You can’t ad lib Shakespeare.’ I had very little respect for her after she said that.”
One of his main motives for wanting to direct Shrew, Davis quips, is, “I don’t understand it. I don’t know why people want to do plays that they DO understand. Why not just read it and smile to yourself in ... well, understanding.”
When the curtain rises, Davis says, “A family patriarch, Baptista Minola (Phil Crone), wants to get his youngest daughter, Bianca (Heather Hackford), married off to one of her many suitors. The problem: custom dictates that his older daughter, the raging shrew Katharina, or Kate (Debra Gillingham), must first be wed. But no man in the county wants to touch the savage Kate. Until an out-of-towner, Petruchio (Nick Berg Barnes), comes along. But the ‘Taming’ that Petruchio has in mind for Kate is much different than what anyone had in mind. Hilarity ensues.”
Besides Barnes, Crone, Gillingham, and Hackford, the Burning Coal cast for Shrew includes New York City-based actress Liz Beckham as the goofball servant Tranio and Triangle actors Bob Barr, Stephen LeTrent, Ian Finley, and Noelle Barnard — plus David Coulter, Luke Custer, Heather Fisher, Juanita Frederick, Becca Johnson, Danijela Lalarevic, Ryan Nazionale, Justin Schwartz, Amanda Watson, and Jason Weeks.
In addition to director Jerome Davis, who previously directed Rat in the Skull, Pentecost, Winding the Ball, The Steward of Christendom, Night and Day, The Weir, Company, Juno and the Paycock, and Accidental Death of an Anarchist for Burning Coal, the show’s production team will include assistant director Gina Kelly; technical director Curtis Jones; scenic designer extraordinaire Sonya Drum; lighting designer Cindy Limauro of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA; costume designer Maggie Clifton of Washington, DC; properties master Gabrieal Griego; sound designer Sloe; and stage manager Andy Hayworth.
When asked to identify the major challenges of staging Shrew for 21st century audiences, Jerry Davis responds, “Well, it is a big play, and a comedy with a serious question at its core. So, all the elements have to serve two purposes: to further the comedic surface storytelling and also to reveal the deeper heart of the play. We have a great design team for this one, including Cindy Limauro, who headed the lighting program at Carnegie Mellon for six years.”
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Davis describes the show’s set as “a big ole sandbox” and its lighting and its costumes as “zen-like.”
He adds, “I think certain questions are evident in Shrew that are never really explored, or that I’ve never really seen explored. One: Why is Kate unhappy? Answer: because she lives in a society that devalues women. One line in the play says, ‘Men should be strong on the inside and women should be pretty on the outside’ (paraphrase). So, we understand then that Kate is rebelling.
“We also know from the text that she is the only one so rebelling,” Davis points out. “All the other women in the community ‘play the game’ in order to get what they want (i.e., comfort, protection, wealth).”
The second question, Davis says, is “What does Petruchio want? We know his father has just died. We know he has tons of money. And we know that he has left his own hometown to find a wife. Why? Simple answer: he didn’t like any of the women in his hometown, and/or they didn’t like him.
“As soon as he hears of Kate, the rebellious one, he says ‘That one is for me.’ Why?” Davis asks. “Because he recognizes a kindred spirit. So then, when he sets about to ‘Tame’ her, what is he really trying to do? To make her like her sister Bianca and all the other women? [That] doesn’t seem likely. To make her rebellious? She already is that. So what [is Petruchio trying to accomplish]?
“Therein lies the great question of this play,” claims Davis. “What is Petruchio really up to? For me, the answer lies with one last question: Who wins and who loses at the end of the play? You’ll have to come see to find out the answer to that one.
“Also,” Jerry Davis says, “everyone should know we have a great cast for this one, including Nick Berg Barnes, who is a native Londoner and who has appeared at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], the Royal Court, and many others. He once appeared in a play directed by Charlton Heston!”
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents The Taming of the Shrew Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 15-17, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 18, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 21-24 and Sept. 28-Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday and groups of 10 or more and $16 Thursday-Sunday ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except Sept. 18th pay-what-you-can performance. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Tickets%20for%20SHREW.htm [inactive 8/07]. Note: The Sept. 17th performance will be audio described. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Shakespeare Resources: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/shakespeare/ [inactive 3/10]. E-Text: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaTamF.html (First Folio, 1623) and http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MobTami.html (Globe Edition, 1866).