Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
When it comes to staging Shakespeare on the indie stage, the pressure nowadays seems to be to find a new take, a new way of telling the story that no one else has thought of. Some of them work, some of them don’t. Gender-bent casting is an old trick, but it is one that has worked in the past. It’s advantageous in New York, given the ratio of male to female actors in the city, and it can be used to make a point about the message of the chosen play. So when that play is ‘Taming of the Shrew’, and the cast is all-female, what message does that send? It’s not a play that really works in a modern context, given its sexist themes and out-dated philosophy. In a conventionally cast production it’s hard to make it work without extensive re-writes, so does an all-girl cast make it better, or worse? The answer is… well, neither.
The plot of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is interesting, varied and available for your perusal online. If you’re not familiar with it, I don’t have time to baby you, go read a Wikipedia. The Queen’s Company are a company that specialize in all-female Shakespeare, and this production is right within their wheelhouse. Their take, at least in this instance, of women playing all the parts, is to have the women playing men play the men as men and not as women. The issue with that is that some of the women doing it are better than others. Amy Driesler (as Lucent and Curtis) is transformative in the men she plays, completely embodying a masculine identity. It’s like Cate Blanchett in ‘I’m Not There’, she’s that good. Others, however, just seem like women in trousers and fake beards doing deep voices. Elisabeth Preston (as Petruchio) falls under this banner. She’s not a bad actress, by any means, but because she’s working so hard at being a man, and so physically is not, you are constantly distracted by who she is rather than who she is pretending to be. She falls in to the uncanny valley for women playing men. Again, I stress, she’s obviously very talented, but what the overall effect here is distracting.
I know it’s going to sound like I’m getting down on this production a lot in this review. In reality I don’t hate it, and I admire the vision of the Queen’s Company, but this particular showing just has so many points of conflict I can’t not talk about them. I’ll take a moment here, then, to highlight the stuff that really does work, because this show has a few strokes of genius. The first is to have Bianca played by a blow-up doll. That’s just hilarious. All her lines are cut, bar a couple that are done for her by an off-stage Kelsey Arendt, and the actors make some great stage business out of her, including a rather daring tango. Katharina's final monologue, too, works brilliantly. Tiffany Abercrombie delivers it marvelously and it’s a wonderful distillation of everything the character has been through. Director Rebecca Paterson also makes use of lip-synced musical numbers, with actors pretending to croon away in order to further the emotional action. I can’t see purists loving these, but I found them engaging and entertaining. So there is stuff to like here. There’s just also so much that frustrated the bejesus out of me.
Nailing down exactly what I don’t like about this production is very hard. I suppose it’s an accumulation of muddled moments all failing because of the same banner. That banner is the idea that you can somehow fix the inherent sexism of Shakespeare’s text with any amount of staging conceits. You can’t. Apparently the only way to make this script less sexist is to cast Heath Ledger. They try and lampshade the play’s sexism with a brief skit at the start of the play. It’s doesn’t work. Women play all the male parts. It doesn’t work. They cast a blow-up doll to make a point about Bianca. It’s really funny, but it doesn’t work. This play is still sexist as fuck. It still is about a strong, independent women, who is psychologically tortured by a man who tricks her in to marrying her, has her will broken, and then stays married to him at the end of the play because… reasons. No matter how they frame it, and they try and frame it every which way but Wednesday, they can’t get away from the fact that play endorses, or at least excuses, rape culture. Which, when performed by a company of all women, sends a weird message. Interesting to think that the weakest thing about a production of Shakespeare is Shakespeare himself.
So the end result of this production is, essentially a big fat zero. It’s positive points can’t overrule the fact that it’s a play about abusing women for fun and profit that rules in the man’s favor. Even if that man is now a woman, that’s still fucked. So there’s no great reason to go and see this show, but then there’s no great reason not to either. The cast are pretty good, not all of them make great men, but some of them do, and the rest all act pretty good. Some laughs are had, but the message of the play, combined with the directorial vision come off as a muddled, sexist mess. So see it or don’t, I’m not fussed. It’s not bad, it’s just not good either.
The Queen’s Company’s production of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ ran at the Wild Project until May 1st. For more information about the Queen’s Company, visit their website (queenscompany.org), follow them on Facebook (As ‘The Queen’s Company) and on Twitter (@queenscompany).
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)