Shrewd Shrew ?
When I think of great moments of misogyny in drama -- and there are so many, going back so many centuries, involving so much of Western literature, and sometimes I get so angry that it's all I can do not to take my cane to those theater folk who insist the plays aren't anti-female, but only a mirror to nature -- and as I say, when I think of theatrical misogyny, The Taming of the Shrew comes most immediately to mind. I've seen several productions in which a sort of commedia dell'arte-meets-hellzapoppin' style is supposed to give the violence a farcical touch. The fact is, however, that the play was written during the late 16th century, when the status of women was continually discussed. The earlier arguments that women might be at least the moral equals of men gave way, in the 1590s, to a backlash in which women were exhorted to be real women, chaste and obedient, and to recognize the God-given authority of their husbands. It is within this political context that Shrew appears.
I raise the issue not out of an uncontrolled burst of feminism, but because a new production of Shrew opens Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Next Stage Theater in S.F. Dudgeon at the ready, I call Sherri Young, executive director of the African-American Shakespeare Company, and ask, not too calmly, what's the deal? Young contends that "the play deals with the problems that men and women still have with each other. Kate is a solid woman who won't put up with anyone's shit. She learns in the course of the play that a relationship will only work if she cuts her edge softer."
Young maintains that "theater is about connection. It's the last place [in the arts] where we can connect with each other." The company offers opportunities to African-American actors to perform classical roles, still the benchmark of an actor's skill. "Too often," Young explains, "nontraditional casting means that the African-American actors are cast as Fairy Number 2, or as part of a crowd scene."
I ask Kathryn Seabron, Shrew's director, "Why this play?" She tells me that "ever since I was little, when I first read the play, I saw Kate as a large, feisty black woman, and I wanted to see that onstage." As for the misogyny, Seabron has made some changes: "Baptista is now a woman, so instead of a father getting rid of his chattel, it's a mother finding security for her daughters. For me, the show is about women coming to terms with their power. Kate is intelligent, strong, and opinionated -- all things that are seen as bad for women. She's so angry. Petruchio shows her what she's doing, helps her to see that she doesn't have to be so angry."
Will the African-American female perspective diminish the misogyny? Decide for yourself. Call 333-1918.