Athol Fugard’s Powerful Apartheid-Era Play Resonates Today
One of the Bard’s earliest and most popular plays, “The Taming of the Shrew,” is billed as a comedy. Be forewarned though—it is anything but.
Curiously chosen as the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s season opener, “Shrew” isn’t the light fare commonly used to ease patrons out of a summer’s lull. It is a far cry from the frivolity of “Kiss Me, Kate,” the play’s musical offshoot, and encompasses little of the gaiety anticipated from a Shakespeare farce.
“Shrew” is, in fact, a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a sharp-toothed predator disguised as satire. The script is brutally misogynist, which none of the characters oppose.
To recap the story: Arrogant Petruchio, who is desperate to marry money, turns the fiery-tongued, wealthy Katherina into a docile, submissive wife. Sounds like a typical romantic Shakespeare plot, doesn’t it?
But what the playbill doesn’t mention is that for 16th-century Elizabethans, the content of “Shrew” was commonplace. Back then, the path to a couple’s marital bliss often came through domestic browbeating and physical abuse, as husbands, or “lords,” used devices such as bridles and beatings to break in their disobedient wives. Although figures of authority urged men to refrain from physical abuse, the practice was, nonetheless, legal.
In fact, marriage was a highly patriarchal institution meant to exchange wealth from one family to the next by the selling off of daughters. “Marriage was a ruthless game of mergers and acquisitions,” wrote Akiva Fox, Shakespeare Theatre’s literary associate. “Katherina is a ‘fretting’ [depreciating] commodity.”
Needless to say, these realities are difficult for today’s audiences to stomach. Granted, those familiar with criticisms of “Shrew” won’t be surprised by its content. However, it is important to note that this no-holds-barred production, directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, does nothing to gloss over the play’s brutishness, instead fanning the flames of controversy that the script has evoked over the years.
“Instead of ironing out the play’s contradictions, I want to open and stretch them out,” Taichman said during the production’s first rehearsal. “Kate can mean what she says [that wives should serve their husbands], while also being bitterly aware of how she is performing a male fantasy,” the director explained. “One truth need not necessarily negate the other.”
Theater critic Coppelia Kahn tried to shed light on another one of the play’s contradictions in “Coming of Age: Marriage and Manhood in The Taming of the Shrew.” She wrote: “We realize that the myth of feminine weakness, which prescribes that women ought to or must inevitably submit to man’s superior authority, masks a contrary myth: that only a woman has the power to authenticate a man, by acknowledging him her master.”
Putting aside the legacy of debate over “Shrew,” there is no question that this production lives up to the Shakespeare Theatre’s consistently superb reputation of making the Bard relevant for today’s audiences.
The success in this case results largely from the decision to cast the role of Kate with Charlayne Woodard, a dynamic spitfire well known for her performances in Broadway’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and her autobiographical “Pretty Fire.” Woodard commands a huge presence despite her tiny frame, portraying Kate as both an aggressive, independent feminist and a vulnerable daughter who suffers under her father’s callousness.
Her androgynous attire—straight out of a Gap catalog—along with her forceful walk and quick tongue dominate the stage, making her immediately accessible.
Ironically, however, the contemporary realism Woodard brings to her character tends to work against the plot’s credibility. Based on where Woodard’s Kate starts out, it is difficult to believe she would swing so dramatically and quickly to the other side of the obedience pendulum. This Kate might be more likely to murder her husband before willingly kowtowing to his devaluing coercion.
On the other hand, Kate’s initial stronghold makes her ultimate deference to Petruchio that much more painful to watch. The fact that Woodard, who is black, is whipped into submission by a white Petruchio (forcefully played by Christopher Innvar) further clashes with today’s ideals of political correctness and equality. The result is more discord for the audience—no doubt the director’s intention.
The sets and costumes also push the creative envelope. The home of Kate’s father, Baptista, is designed in lipstick-reds, mirrored halls and revolving doors that bring to mind a modern European strip club. A mammoth billboard of a female’s salacious legs and torso hovers over the stage. The woman’s head is hidden from view and irrelevant to her goggling male admirers.
Bianca, Kate’s younger bombshell of a sister, resembles the cardboard woman as she tempts her suitors with 1940s-like pin-up poses and suggestive frocks.
At some point, the mirrored setting starts to resemble a carnival funhouse that distorts reality and plays tricks on its patrons. In typical Shakespearean fashion, the characters begin to change from who they first appeared to be. Suitors fake identities to woo Bianca, and the women’s attitudes toward their men reverse by play’s end.
As the characters morph from one state to the next, so do the audience’s emotions. At the end of the day, one has to wonder: Is the play a glorification of domestic abuse, or a warning against it?
The Taming of the Shrew through Nov. 18 Shakespeare Theatre 450 7th St., NW Tickets are .50 to .75. For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.