Stratford: Day Three – The Taming of the Shrew (and Stratford Boss Mode Unlocked)

Welcome back, dear friends! It is with heavy hearts that we come to the end of our stay in beautiful Stratford, Canada. We took in our last two shows today (yes, two… we deviated from our original schedule in the name of love) and will be headed home tomorrow afternoon. We are no less enchanted by every experience, every moment we have had whilst attending the festival and only wish we had the time and means to stay a bit longer. As yesterday, today was to be a single show day with The Taming of the Shrew bringing up the rear of our theatrical vacation, but we got carried away and decided to rush tickets for Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet. Again. And we’d go a third time in a heartbeat.

But, enough. We have regaled you with the MANY winning qualities that Hamlet possesses already and we must do our duty to bring you our patented “review bullets” for Shrew before we continue our excessive Hamlet gushing.

-As with every show we have seen in Stratford, the technical design was exemplary. Though the set was nowhere near as lavish as others we saw this weekend, it was a clear and very well thought out homage to open air theatres much like Shakespeare’s own Globe. The costumes were a gorgeous parade of lavish, brightly colored Elizabethan garb. (It should also be noted that Shrew was the only Stratford Shakespeare production to remain within its original period.) Music was also heavily implemented in Shrew, lending much to the overall tone of several key scenes. A special shout out should go to the lodge-inspired design for Petruchio’s home, which very much resembled Gaston’s inn in Beauty in the Beast, thus showcasing Petruchio’s over-the-top masculinity.

-The Stratford production of Shrew, much to our confusion, made the decision to keep the prologue. This portion is often cut due to its complete lack of connection to the main action of the play. The actors performed it splendidly (as all the acting we have seen thus far has been superb), but the prologue is so problematic that it effectively takes you out of the narrative before it even begins.

-Petruchio, this evening, was played by the understudy. An exceptional actor whose work we had already observed in Hamlet, we were excited to have a chance to witness his performance. He was quite excellent. Apart from the wig which did not suit him and had a fighting spirit of its own, insisting on blinding him and gagging him throughout the performance. It was clear that the actor did not like the wig either, though he was quite adept at turning his hair adjustments into a character trait.

-Kate was the true winner of tonight’s battle of the sexes. Her performance was physical and varied, delivering a strong, capable woman to the stage. Her facial expressions were unmatched, easily demonstrating her sarcasm, her exasperation, her defeat, and her regrouping as she realized how best to achieve the upper hand.

-Tonight’s scene-stealer was Tranio (played by the same actor who played Polonius and Holofernes). A sparkling wit, a keen hand for delivering Shakespeare’s words with ease, and the physicality of a clown, Tranio was a joy to watch in every scene.

-While the overall play was another fine example of the splendid work put up for the Stratford Festival, this interpretation of Shrew was not our favorite. Had this same cast been given the interpretative layers that exist in the BBC’s production, it would have been perfection. However, Petruchio’s abuse in Act II was taken to a place which found no relief and had no hint of an underlying motive to truly help Kate. Also, while the use of physicality between Kate and Petruchio during their first meeting was well-utilized and quite entertaining we do wish the physical comedy between them could have been used as a way to show their initial spark of attraction. The thing we liked best about the interpretation was the decision to use Kate’s final monologue as a seductive speech directed largely at Petruchio. Though several key jabs of sarcasm were clear, it was most clear that in seducing Petruchio it was, in fact, Kate who was doing the “taming”.

We had a great time at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and truly enjoyed every play we saw. (Of course, there was a clear favorite in Hamlet.) The atmosphere, the plays, the food, and the people all contributed to an experience that we are certain cannot be found anywhere else. We will endeavor to make the journey back next year for the 2016 season and we encourage everyone else to make the trip. It is well worth it.

-A & C

Stratford: Day Two – Love’s Labour’s Lost (and an extra!)

So…another day has come to its conclusion here in sunny, stunning Stratford. We persist in our notions of never leaving…or, at the very least, of returning as often as possible with the view to one day owning a writers’ retreat. The energy here is astounding; an entire town pretty much devoted to theater–and culture in general. Not to mention the saga of Bonnie and her cheating cob (a male swan), Clyde, which…is…priceless. It’s worth the price of admission, at the very least.

But I prevaricate (as I always do when I’m the one doing the typing); there is much for us to regale. We promise, however, to be briefer today than we were yesterday (though, truth be told, we read yesterday’s and realized it just couldn’t capture the feeling). So…onward to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Again, we choose bullet points to best organize our thoughts.

-First off…surprise! We really liked it. It was quite enjoyable. As one of the performers put it earlier that day as we sat in a forum, it is “Shakespeare’s version of Seinfeld.” Put simply, it is a play about nothing, but full of many things that make it worth while.

-As with Hamlet, the technical aspects of this play were absolutely flawless. The use of light (I am informed by my other half that the use of gobos in the second act was particularly tasteful), sound, and set were well suited to the play and to the theater, taking full advantage of the space and adding to the performance. In fact, the use of music throughout–there are a lot more songs in this version than in the play itself–really added to the magic of the afternoon. I liked the composition of the music, myself; as the play is set in Navarre, it had a Spanish flair that added character to everything. In the second act, lanterns magically appeared and turned the stage into a nighttime wonderland. For a play that doesn’t have much of a plot, the ability of the technical team to transport the audience to this other world really helped sell the performance.

-Also like Hamlet, the actors managed to draw humor from every possible word, movement, and situation. Somehow we missed (in not reading the play like we said we would…many pardons do we humbly seek of thee, dear reader) the fact that Shakespeare literally calls someone a dick in this play. Do you know who didn’t miss that fact? The director and the actor playing Berowne, who shouted it to great effect. The whole team behind this production seemed to know that the play’s language was particularly dense, its less obvious jokes liable to fly way over the heads of the audience (present company included), so they decided to milk everything they could to turn a difficult and Seinfieldian play into an uproarious occasion. They were particularly adept at finding all of Shakespeare’s sex and fat jokes and calling all the attention to them.

-The wig. Don Armado’s wig gets its own point before any of the actors because it is the real star of the show. To describe it in mere words cannot do justice to its grandeur, but we shall attempt the endeavor. Picture it…three loose spikes of hair, one atop his head and one each behind his ears, standing at least a foot tall. What’s more, the costuming people decided to hide it beneath a hat (that had no top, so as not to crush this unicorn of a wig) upon the character’s entrance, allowing for the glorious revelation and big laughs. It was, indeed, the centerpiece of this performance.

-The man upon which it sat was also a star. We saw him as the Player King in yesterday’s performance and today’s was utter comedic genius. His accent, his movements, his delivery, his ability to play with the child actor, his costume…Don Armado was quite obviously as much fun for him to play as it was for us to watch. Kudos, sir; we owe thee much.

-Did we happen to mention yesterday that the actor playing Polonius is in all three of our planned theatrical endeavors? The man is in three Shakespeare plays in one season! And as brilliant as he was yesterday, he was equally brilliant today. His facility with the language–and his character, Holofernes, has much difficult language to speak–and physical performance again blew us away. As far as we are concerned, the man can do no wrong. When we return next year (and we *will* return next year), we shall seek him out because we know any play he’s in is bound to be good. (It should also be noted that he and the actor playing Don Armado were the two gentlemen who so kindly answered audience questions at the forum this morning. Our greatest sadness from this journey–aside from the fact that it must end–is in not knowing that this free forums existed earlier.)

-The stand out performance for us today was absolutely Berowne. Aside from the fact that he was the one who got to shout “SOME DICK!” at the top of his lungs, he was the (human) star of this performance (again…the wig). Obviously, his character is the star of this play insofar as there is a star, but the actor brought real depth and sparkling lightness all at once. His inspired use of the set, his voice, his body…all of it was outstanding. He brings a…sassy quality to the character that we recognized from yesterday’s scarf toss as Laertes; of all the actors on that stage, his wit was truly rapier sharp. When he spoke the lines, they felt like part of a war of words and when he wanted to make the audience laugh, he made us laugh. Basically, we were puppets and he was the master. The fact that he handed one of Berowne’s poems to an audience member and collected it later just encapsulates his playfulness (as does, again, shouting “Some dick!”, which really amused us). Well done, sir.

-Brief shout out to the actor playing Dumaine for his handless cartwheels (which my other half has dutifully informed me are actually called aerials) while reciting Shakespeare. Also, damn you sir for being able to do that and not lose your breath. Shakespeare and gymnastics?! ARE YOU INSANE?!

All-in-all, this was a damn fine performance. Perhaps not enough to turn us into rampant Love’s Labour’s Lost fangirls, but certainly enough that we would enjoy seeing this particular staging again. Especially because Polonius/Holofernes can SING. He informed us he only does musicals like once a decade and, for the life of us, we cannot figure out why. He is amazing. Also, Berowne had fabulous hair.

STRATFORD BONUS ROUND ACTIVATED.

We got bored. We bought rush tickets. We saw She Stoops to Conquer, which is a farcical Restoration comedy by Oliver Goldsmith. Now, it is exceedingly difficult to jump from two days of Shakespeare into Restoration comedy, where much of the humor lies in the restraint and the comedy of manners that unfolds on stage. This was, of course, a product of the time in which the play was written, but very different from bawdy Shakespeare and certainly alien to modern audiences. They made very good use of the comedy that was there in the script and also in adding some modern emotional touches where they could, but because of the restraint necessary in giving a true, Restoration feel to the performance (which this production definitely chose to do), they were very limited in what they could add or change. This is not to say that the production was bad–far from it. In fact, we both liked it very much; we especially loved Tony, the buffoon and thus the least restricted by the style and period. But, having come from Shakespeare, our minds were just not in the right place to appreciate the slow, meandering, controlled pace of this play, so we didn’t enjoy it as much as what we had already seen.  But I wouldn’t say we were disappointed. As in all of Stratford’s productions, however, many props and kudos to the technical department; y’all turned it out!

And that is it from day two of Stratford! We have been your hosts for this evening! Until tomorrow, when we bring you The Taming of the Shrew (and…maybe something else…)

C and A

Stratford Week: Day 1 – Hamlet

How do we articulate these feelings?

Ok, back up… First off, we made it! We arrived in beautiful Stratford, Ontario last night shortly after 10:30pm. We weren’t sure we’d get here at all. After being trapped on the runway for three hours, we were fairly certain our trip was cursed. How wrong we were.

This marks the end of day one and we are never leaving. (Don’t tell the customs agent. He was brusque. He will hunt us down.)

This place is stunning. Right outside our window is the river Avon, full of geese and swans and cute little orange-footed ducks. The weather is sublime. The locals have said it’s a bit chilly for this time of year, but coming out of the hell that is South Florida, we’re in heaven. Our B&B is adorable, our host is a font of local knowledge (and delicious food), and our fellow guests possess kindred minds and are thoroughly engaging. (They’ve already scheduled a post-Shrew talk with us on Sunday. Apparently there’s a lot to be said.) The town itself is quaint, cultured, and full of historical charm. We love it. (PS in case you couldn’t tell from our choice of ‘we’, we are writing this post together today. With one of us being a comma nazi… Lookin’ at you,,,,, C.)

On to the meat of the matter: The Plays. Which are obviously the thing.

Day 1: Hamlet

We decided to start heavy and work our way to the frivolity of the comedies. Imagine our delight when Hamlet turned out to be funny. Sort of. Let us explain.

Given the weightiness of this particular play and the fact that we could write two dissertations (one apiece) on it, we’ve decided to use bullet points to mark our opinions as concisely as possible. Because brevity is the soul of wit.

1 – WE LOVED THIS PERFORMANCE. We have nothing to complain about. (With the exception of a wig change that was unnecessary and distracting.

2 – Everything was stunningly spectacular. Every actor. Every performance. Every decision of direction and staging and sound and light and everything. If pressed to choose a weakness, we would be forced to pick Gertrude, not because of a poor performance, but because the part itself is so overshadowed by such monoliths of theater. Even at her greatest, she must be overtaken. But we would choose no weakness at all if we could because we were undone by this performance. Our words melted into gibberish. It even got some tears.

3 – The technical design for this show was flawless. The use of stark lighting, set, and clothing along with the very purposeful placement of sound and music was masterfully done. This allowed the universal humanity of the performances to be front and center. All focus was on the actors, the emotion, the story. There were no Elizabethan cuffs or rampart facades to distract attention from the brilliant work the actors were living every minute of those three hours. (Three hours? Sure didn’t feel like it. That’s how good it was.)

4 – The modernization of the piece was highly successful in its interpretation of Shakespeare’s words. (Words. Words.) The emphases upon the language as we might speak it today was refreshing and accessible. The speeches were more real than we’ve ever seen and the connection the actors had to the dialogue was almost tangible. What was really remarkable was the understating of certain “staple” lines which were not given a whole fanfare in the fact that they are famed unto themselves. This really contributed to making the performance memorable.

5 – On to Hamlet, the Dane himself. wow. We have so many and so few words to express how incredible this performance truly was. It was a beautiful, multi-layered, real, emotional, funny, connected, tragic, controlled, and manic gift to the audience. Just wow. Hamlet’s performance brought tears to our eyes and somehow made us laugh out loud. From start to finish, Hamlet’s journey was fraught with emotion and movement. There is no hint of the stereotypical melancholy, prevaricating Dane. This Hamlet is a full body Hamlet. His physical actions as well as his emotional range moved the play forward with a speed and urgency that was electric. (Seriously, we were halfway through the “what a piece of work is man” speech before we even realized it.) He underplayed a lot of the “big Hamlet moments” and the result was something special. His delivery of the “to be or not to be” speech, for example, didn’t seem like the wishy-washy, suicide-contemplating Hamlet we are all used to seeing. Instead we watched a man contemplating the choices he had made and the consequences of those choices yet to be made. He was alternately strong and ridden with grief, madly in love and full of hate. He is in no way indecisive. It is clear that this Hamlet has made his decision and the only conflict lies in how to do away with Claudius. There is much more to be said, but we have to stop somewhere.

6 – The discovery of humor within this play was a great accomplishment for the director and the actors. Each character was so thoroughly developed as to have created their unique sense of humor, their own sense of the absurd. Everything from Laertes throwing a scarf around his neck with a touch of sass to Rosenkrantz’s sly gay joke to Hamlet’s crab walk equally contributed to a sense of lightness that is not normally found herein. Again, this only served to color the humanity of the piece, the truth in a story which hits us with emotion after emotion, all of which we have experienced ourselves. In bringing the humor, this light when all seems lost, we were given a story that explored the complexity of psyche as felt by each character. Though Shakespeare clearly wrote comedy into Hamlet (we’ll get to that in a moment), this production managed to pluck it from the barest implications.

7 – Speaking of Shakespeare’s intended comedy. Polonius. Here’s a character who was purposefully intended to be ridiculous and this production takes full liberty. It was awesome. The actor playing Polonius milked every single moment and piece of dialogue which he was a part of for all its worth and then some. His physicality, his wordplay, his singing voice (yes, he sang), and his intonations all led to a perfectly executed comic performance. One of our favorite moments was when the character lost track of what he was saying and was so convincing that for a moment we feared the actor had, in fact, slipped up on his lines. His frenetic delivery of Polonius was funny and heartwarming. When he was killed we cried.

8 – With Polonius gone what were we to do for humor? Well, it’s no coincidence that Shakespeare gives us the grave digger shortly after our main source of comedic relief is murdered. The grave digger in this production wins the prize for most Canadian actor we’ve ever seen. He was also a gifted comic actor, bringing some much needed laughter to the audience during the back half of the play. He was great. His comedy was delivered as deadpan as can be, taking advantage of the sarcastic literality that Shakespeare gave him. Bravo.

9 – And on the opposite side of the spectrum… there’s Ophelia. To begin with her performance was bland, deceitfully so, for the actress delivering Ophelia’s mad rants was a raw force of nature. Her use of her body and her voice were perfectly coordinated with the ups and downs of her erratic behavior. She was completely convincing when she was mad, but one of her best scenes was with Hamlet in the “get thee to a nunnery” sequence. The raw emotion that existed between she and Hamlet was entrancing, and in those moments, in the throws of broken love and hysteria, she was one of the few actors to truly match Hamlet’s state of heightened being.

10 – Speaking of the connection between Hamlet and Ophelia, this production did not hold back the depth of their relationship. Too often Hamlet and Ophelia are played as flirting courtiers with no sense of affection, a fading romance that Hamlet has no interest in pursuing. Not so at Stratford! If Hamlet and Ophelia’s love for one another was not obvious in the “nunnery” scene it is certainly made obvious at Ophelia’s funeral. The reaction to her death and the heart-wrenching revelation that he loved her, as screamed out by a distressed, detained Hamlet, is the firm pinnacle of his crumbling facade. More tears.

11 – The ghost scene. The actor playing the ghost (and Claudius, for that matter) was the true embodiment of a specter. His initial silence and stillness were unnerving, and when he spoke his voice was pitched to a deep, rumbling bass that could be felt in the very seats of the theatre. Cloaked and accompanied by a blinding bright lantern his presence was intense. The use of the ghost’s lantern to light the scene between he and Hamlet was ingenious as was the use of the set in creating literal obstacles for Hamlet as he chased after the old king to the sound of a beating drum (the racing of his heart). It was a perfect example of how the set, acting, and music came together so beautifully for the duration of the show.

That’s all for now. As we mentioned… each of us could literally write a thesis on this production and the nuances within. There was not a moment we would have changed and if we could we would watch the show nine more times. (Really. We discussed trading our Love’s Labour’s Lost tickets in order to see it again.) We could not be more happy with our first Stratford Festival experience and can’t wait to see what the rest of the weekend will hold for us. As for Hamlet… We plan to watch the Benedict Cumberbatch production when it hits theatres in October via National Theatre Live’s broadcast, and we can honestly say that we will be holding him to some absurdly high standards.

Tune in tomorrow for Love’s Labour’s Lost!

-A & C

Monday Muse: Shrew Again??

Happy Monday, loyal readers!
Today won’t be much of a muse because C and I watched The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection offering of The Taming of the Shrew this afternoon and it deserves its own bloody post. Despite many people’s gut reaction to hate Shrew in response to the abusive aspects of Kate and Petruchio’s relationship, we have been discussing (at length) how there is actually a great deal of humor to be found, a strong coupling of characters, and plenty of social commentary present within the piece. Since we’ve mentioned these observations before let me move on to the things we haven’t yet written about; things that became increasingly obvious as we watched.

But first! …A few key points

1) John Cleese’s interpretation of Petruchio is stellar.  (I’ll go into why in a moment.)

2) This play is not about what is happening on the surface. Subtext clues are everywhere and if the actors know it and play it with that underscoring, the action becomes very different. That is most definitely the case in this version.

3) Bianca is just as much of a bitch as Kate is.

4) Shakespeare’s words should not be spoken so quickly as to become a rap. (Nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about, Lucentio.)

5) Petruchio and Kate are actually a perfect couple.

Now let me talk to you about John Cleese for a bit. First off, he’s brilliant and, surprisingly, kinda hot. He acts the role with alternating subtlety and lunacy to great effect. He plays his subtext like a pro, effectually showing us his underlying motives. And finally, he has successfully changed our minds vis a vis “Petruchio is a complete and utter asshole”. (SAY WHAT?)

John Cleese’s interpretation of Petruchio is undeniably complex. He shows a genuine interest in Katherina from the get go (as he should) and pairs it with the swaggering manly man surface that Petruchio is famed for. However, in moments of absolute seriousness (which are fleeting, but quite unmistakable), he has only Katherina’s best interests at heart, offering her wisdom in the form of explanations that while the exterior of a person may be one way the heart and mind are not necessarily changed. Here lay a major revelation about the play and the character.

We realized as we watched that, despite his questionable methods, Petruchio is trying to bestow an important lesson on Kate. That is, playing the role that others assign you is easily done, but, given that concession, you are who you are and you can do what you want. He demonstrates how this applies by essentially mirroring her temper and shrillness during the wedding scene. In doing so, he not only shows her how others must view her tirades but manages to garner some sympathy for her, making her own character seem (momentarily) less erratic. He mimics her again when they are at his home and, though he does not let her eat or sleep, it would appear that he is putting himself through the same misery and doesn’t want to draw it out any longer than he thinks he has to.

It is on their way back to Padua when the lesson really seems to settle with Kate. Petruchio insists that the moon is the sun and Vincenzo is a woman and this is that, etc. In this scene he basically teaches Kate an elaborate game designed to help her fit in, earning respect from her father and sister and community while maintaining who she has always been. To her credit, Sarah Badel (who plays Kate) brings lightness to the scene, turning from annoyance and impatience to understanding and laughter as she begins to play Petruchio’s game. Though their attraction has been clear since their first meeting, here we see them having fun together, enjoying one another for having matching wit.

There are many lovely nuances to Cleese’s and Badel’s performances but it is hard to capture them all in writing as so much is seen and told in the subtlety of their looks or the expressions on their faces. One thing is abundantly clear though, there is much more to the story than meets the eye. A reading of the play would be hard pressed to expect any reader to find these interpretations, but these actors and their director seem to have found the love and concern that lies in Petruchio’s actions. And that is an incredible feat.

So please do yourself a favor and watch this Shrew. You won’t believe how good it is. It might actually make you like the play. I know it certainly solidified it for me.

Cheers!

A

Twiday Special Edition

Happy Twiday, readers! What is Twiday, you ask? It’s Twilight Day…halfway between Sunday and Monday (Moon Day). Thus…Twilight! Yes…I am an idiot. Sorry.

Why this special edition, you may ask?

Do you remember Saturday’s post? You should. It was no more than, like, 36 hours ago that we posted it. Most importantly, do you remember the fact that John Cleese played Petruchio for BBC Shakespeare? And that A asked for the internet’s help in finding it? Well, guess what?

I FOUND IT!

Granted, you’ll need a subscription to Hulu+, but I FOUND IT! It wasn’t there the last time I looked, or else I would have mentioned it before. So…go forth and watched Sir Lancelot play an asshole! I mean…Petruchio. Go watch John Cleese play Petruchio.

Also…Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet are available from the same collection, as well as Richard III from the Criterion Collection, as I mentioned before.

I WIN! But, more importantly, EVERYONE WINS!

All right…back to our regularly scheduled programming.

C

Silly Sunday: What is Silly about Taming?!

Greetings, readers, and welcome to Silly Sunday: Shakespeare Style! (I’m really into alliteration, guys.) Today is the day we find the light side of the internet. During Shakespeare-a-palooza, it’s the day we find the light side of the week’s chosen play.

One problem. This week’s play is The Taming of the Shrew. (I also, apparently, hate articles at the beginning of titles, since this is the first time I’ve used it…)

Why is this a problem? Did you not read yesterday’s and Friday’s posts? If not, please do so and come back. You’ll be much more informed, and probably entertained.

(You can finally answer his question!)

Anyway…given that the whole problem of this play is finding the humor and the silly amidst the abuse, I decided to forget the play entirely and move on to something else. But I don’t want to get too far out of the realm of this week’s theme, so I turned to the best adaptation ever: 10 Things I Hate About You. Remember Heath Ledger in that movie? You should. Because he’s great.

On the note of his greatness, to finish out this week’s Shrew-based revelry, I decided to remind you of just how awesome he was. So, ladies and gentlemen…enjoy the scene that raised the bar for song-based wooing forevermore!

*wipes tears away* God, I miss him…

Anyway! That’s it for today’s silliness! Tomorrow is the last Muse before Stratford! (SO EXCITED! I’m packing right after I click publish!)

C

Shakespeare Saturday: What to Watch

Heeeeeey! Welcome back to Shakespeare Saturday’s What to Watch, courtesy of Nerd Cactus Presents: Shakespeare-a-palooza! It’s been a fun couple of weeks here at Cactus HQ and we’re happy to report that Shakespeare Month has been quite a success (more of the same may be on the way in the future, so keep your eyes on the blog)! Next week, our persistent love of the Bard is going to culminate with our very first “business trip” to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in beautiful Canada and we could NOT be more excited. The excitement is palpable. FEEL IT.

Yesterday C dove once again into The Taming of the Shrew (weird how that one keeps cropping up with her…) and discussed its basic plot as well as why she believes Katherina is not, in fact, “tamed”. I wholeheartedly agree with that interpretation and I think we can all agree that while Shakespeare’s early female leads were essentially cardboard cutouts, Kate’s final monologue was a massive step forward in his portrayal of women. While the domestic abuse in the play is cringe-worthy there are no adaptations (at least to my knowledge) that do not portray Katherina as “playing along” in order to gain Petruchio’s trust/love before making a play for the upper hand. She is a strong-willed woman, after all, (we’ve seen it in every scene pre-marriage and even post-marriage) and she’s fully capable of making some concessions for Petruchio’s ego and her own well-being as she performs the image of a good wife for her husband’s benefit. She’s actually quite successful at taking charge of her position. Let’s be serious, you know once the curtain falls she straight up runs Petruchio’s household.

While the “battle of the sexes” has been a remarkably reliable source of comedy for the last 400 plus years, (and when I say “plus” I mean like literally all of history… Lysistrata, for example, was written around 411 B.C. for heaven’s sake) Shrew is often mistaken as a portrayal of some scary misogynistic reality in which women are indeed “lesser”, unable to fend for themselves against the strength of men. Kate shuts that shit down though. Truly. Here’s why.

Her final speech and her general shrewdness demonstrate that while men may have the brawn, women still possess brains and she uses hers to place herself on equal footing with her husband (even if she is offering to hold his boot, which you’ll notice he doesn’t take her up on. Why? Well, he probably will want sex at some point… Remember Lysistrata? Yeah. Women have a sort of power in that area of a relationship). Kate basically uses the speech to stroke Petruchio’s massive ego, egging him to be as successful as he can so that he can provide her all the luxuries a wife deserves. She also refers to her mind and heart being “as great” as the men she fought with (she knows she’s an equal) and alludes that her reason is greater (“haply more”). Right here is all the proof I need to see that she is playing each and every one of them. Her reason has led her to see that rather than pitching her equal heart and brain at these men she can outsmart them by outwardly offering the Kate they wish her to be. She’s learned to pick her fights and that’s why she wins. Thanks, Shakespeare.

I don’t usually go on these kind of tangents (that’s C’s territory), but I felt it was important to throw in my two cents (or, y’know, 200 odd words…), because I believe that Shrew is really one of Shakespeare’s most difficult pieces to interpret. While I have repeatedly stated that I don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies all that funny, this one, in my mind, is a brilliant social satire that clearly shows how a “lowly woman” can manipulate her husband to bring a sort of secret equality to their relationship. This manipulation – no matter how subtle people believe the text to be – is crucial to understanding that relationships are made up of a constant give and take. And that is a concept that still holds true today. Not that manipulation is the way to go when building strong, loving relationships, but hey this was written in the 1590s and people still play “mind games” with one another (both men and women do this crap and though I’m not a fan, I have witnessed it many a time. And not just when I was in high school…).

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest let’s move on to the film recommendations. After all, that’s why we’re here, amiright? Right.

The Taming of the Shrew has rarely been adapted to film as a result of its difficult to handle/interpret nature. Happily, there are still more options to choose from than last week’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Huzzah! We’ll begin with a nod to the two older versions and move right along to the updated adaptations that will probably be of more interest.

The two older versions of Shrew to which I just alluded were made in 1929 and 1967. The 1929 version starred Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and is worth noting for its treatment of Katharina’s final speech, which included such blatant irony that it is clear she hasn’t been “tamed” at all. The 1967 version starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s noteworthy more for its stars than for its treatment of the play, which is heavily edited and overbearing in its focus on rampant misogyny. So yeah, those are the classics. Watch them if you must, but I’m gonna move right along.

I may have mentioned my love of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate in a previous post. In fact, I’m sure I did. It’s a musical adaptation of Shrew set in the classic play within a play framework that explores the relationships of not only Kate and Petruchio, but also their offstage counterparts (who bear striking resemblances to the characters). It’s one of my all time favorite classic musicals and I was lucky enough to be in a production of it last year. Though there is a movie version from 1953 I suggest you skip it and instead seek out the 2003 PBS production starring Rachel York and Brent Barrett. It’s available on YouTube in chunks, so that’s definitely an option. It’s a perfect combination of comedy, romance, song, dance, and Shakespeare. I highly, highly, highly recommend this version (probably above anything else I’ll be writing about today) and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I always have.

Of course, no post about The Taming of the Shrew would be complete without mentioning the brilliant 1999 modern adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You. I mean seriously what’s not to love? You’ve got Heath Ledger at the height of his Australian bad boy dreaminess, Julia Stiles before she got all skinny and took on a bunch of whiny worry-wart roles, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as an adorable baby version of the sophisticated hottie we all know and love today. And it’s funny! A truly well-written, entertaining update on one of Shakespeare’s most avoided plays. Again, no “taming”, just some tempering in the name of love. Watch it, love it, repeat.

My final two recommendations are both courtesy of the BBC and sadly I have not had the good fortune of finding them online nor the opportunity to watch them anywhere else. But I would be remiss to leave them out, because from the clips I have found on YouTube and the information online they may very well be worth the finding. The first is from The Shakespeare Collection. This incredible collection put every single one of Shakespeare’s works on film over the course of seven seasons. The Taming of the Shrew appears in the third season and stars John Cleese as Petruchio. 

Yes, that John Cleese. Let it settle. Now join me in the search to find it.

The second BBC offering is another modern reimagining which was part of a series entitled ShakespeaRetold. This Shakespeare project sought to update the works of the Bard and from the episode synopses I’d say they were spot on. I’m supremely tempted to outright buy the DVD which includes The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth (starring James McAvoy as an ambitious sous chef no less), but I think I’ll have to wait and see how much I end up spending in Canada.

Here’s the link for those of you who aren’t concerned about your spending habits: http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Retold-Bill-Paterson/dp/B000OY9VFW

Back to Shrew though… The new version BBC has put together stars Rufus Sewell, Twiggy, and Shirley Henderson (better known as Moaning Myrtle to my fellow HP nerds). It follows a young, shrewish politician who is coerced into marriage to further her position in her party. Below is a clip I found and thoroughly enjoyed… You’ve got Henderson (a diminutive force to be reckoned with) and Rufus Sewell (being adorably… What exactly? Calculating? Mocking? Genuinely interested? I don’t know, but seeing as he’s usually a villain it’s hard to get away from that stigma. He sure is yummy though…) stuck in an elevator and it’s just banter and anger and heat. I can’t wait to see the rest.

Good golly that was a long post! Hopefully you found something interesting, entertaining, or useful within my ramblings. If not, thanks for sticking around. Tune in tomorrow for the last pre-Stratford post of Shakespeare Month!

A

Boozy Plays: Taming of the Shrew

Greetings, readers, and welcome to our final edition of Nerd Cactus Presents: Shakespeare-a-palooza, most particularly our special Shakespeare’s Plays version of Boozy Books. Not that this means Shakespeare Month is OVER, mind; it’s just that next week is our trip to Stratford, and we believe that our trip should be YOUR TRIP! So, instead of our usual programming (minus Monday, which will be business as usual), we’re bringing you Nerd Cactus: In Canada! We’ll review the plays we’re seeing, fangirl over all the Shakespeare fun, enjoy being in a place where Summery and Pleasant are actually synonymous, and share with you all the awesome stuff we’re doing. Oh my God, guys, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be going. Even though it means being on an airplane.

(I am not good with planes…)

OK…after you’ve pulled yourself away from that GIF (OMG, RED PANDAS ARE SO CUTE AND IF I WEREN’T MORALLY OPPOSED TO OWNING EXOTIC ANIMALS, I’D GET ONE.)…

The last play we’re seeing while we’re up in Stratford (go ahead and look at the GIF again…I know you want to) is Taming of the Shrew. You might remember it from Monday’s muse in which I link to my journey with God (Morgan Freeman) to the land of milk and honey (aka a complete lightbulb moment in which I realize Shakespeare don’t like ugly). It’s that play with a lot of really uncomfortable behavior, in which a woman is abused horribly in an attempt to break her. It’s also that play most people probably know as 10 Things I Hate About You. Heath Ledger is the best Petruchio to ever be named Patrick Verona (because Petruchio is from Verona, guys).

OK. So…let’s get a little background on this play. It’s not like Hamlet, where everybody knows what happens. Taming of the Shrew is, somehow, a comedy. This is because no one dies, which is really one of the easiest ways of telling Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies apart (except for his dark comedies, also called ‘the problem plays’). After all, is it really funny that Petruchio basically starves Katherina in order to “break” her? No. No it is not. It’s not funny at all. Which is what makes this play so interesting. But enough on that later.

The plot is as follows: Katherina is a bit of a bitch. No, really, she is pretty mean to a lot of people. We excuse it as a modern audience because she’s also witty, intelligent, and strong-willed; these are all things we value in modern society, for both men and women. But she is still kinda mean. She has a younger sister named Bianca, who is pretty much her opposite and, thus, the ‘perfect woman’ in Elizabethan times. Bianca is submissive, innocent, and wholesome (a full on ingénue) and all the boys want to marry her, particularly Hortensio and Lucentio. Alas, Bianca cannot marry until Katherina does…and ain’t no one wanna marry her. Enter Petruchio (a word meaning ‘asshole’ in Esperanto*), a soldier looking to settle down and  get married. He’s not romantic; he just wants to find a rich woman and marry her. And, guess what, Katherina just happens to be rich! So…guess what? They get married and head back to Verona as husband and wife.

So far, so good, right? Wrong. Here comes the part of the play no one can stomach. It’s about as misogynistic as anything can get. Even Richard III would tell Petruchio to ‘settle down’ and he’s so villainous, his story infected history! Petruchio abuses Katherina. There is no other way to put it. He won’t feed her, dangles dresses and jewelry in front of her and then takes them away, forces her to agree with everything he says (even if it isn’t true), and is basically the worst. THE WORST. There is no redeeming these scenes. No humor. No poking fun. They’re awful in every way.

Meanwhile, the funny part of the play is in the suit of Hortensio and Lucentio for Bianca’s hand. There’s disguises and mistaken identities, elopements, etc. It’s basically a farce. Is it also not the heart of the play. I imagine Shakespeare just put it in there so audiences don’t storm out of the theater, because even in Elizabethan times, Petruchio goes too far.

Eventually, P and K return to Padua (stopping by to see Romeo on the way–no, no, I kid) to a big party where Petruchio demonstrates how submissive and docile Katherina has become. The play ends with a big ol’ speech (and it’s important how big and how ol’ it is, believe me) from Katherina explaining how important it is for a woman to be silent and demure and to listen to her husband in all things because he is her lord and master and yadda yadda yadda

Listen. This isn’t a particularly feminist play. But…this is Shakespeare! The man who brought us Juliet and Beatrice and Cleopatra. Strong women who, though played by men, dominate their plays and their stories. Women who absolutely do not take shit and who are celebrated for their power. How, then, could this be by the same man? Was it written earlier, before Shakespeare really got a handle on women? Well, depending on the dates, Romeo and Juliet is pretty contemporary, with at most a year between them. But, yes, perhaps it is just because he wrote it so early. I don’t think so, though. In fact, I think Katherina is just as powerful as the other ladies of Shakespeare. Why? Because of that speech I mentioned earlier.

The speech I refer to (yadda, yadda, yadda, remember?) is the longest speech in the play, the last speech in the play, and Katherina is front and center. Everyone is looking at her, and she is everything in that moment. Petruchio fades, Bianca fades…everyone fades behind her. And she’s telling everyone that a woman should be silent and invisible. It is the single most visible moment in the entire play and it belongs to Katherina. No matter what she says in that moment, she is the star. And that’s how I know Shakespeare loved her. That’s how I know she isn’t broken. Tempered, maybe, in that she has found an equal with whom to share her life and so she no longer feels the need to fight back and to lash out, but definitely not broken. And it must be noted that, in giving this speech, she has won Petruchio and herself quite a bit of money. As for Petruchio? I think, in the words “Kiss me, Kate,” we realize that he knows she isn’t broken, and that this is a woman he loves, and the two of them are well-suited. Their strong wills can temper one another (because oh do I think Katherina just placates Petruchio to shut him up) and create a happy marriage.

But WHAT ABOUT THE ABUSE? Well, yeah…that’s bad. There’s no excusing it. And there’s really no excusing Petruchio from it, even if Katherina decides to (which…I’m sure she gets back at him after the play is over). But I don’t think Shakespeare condones what he wrote. He was exploring the concept of marriage and the relationship between men and women in this play. And perhaps he was turning a mirror upon Elizabethan society. Yes, love marriages had begun to dot up and here and there, and the concept of marriage was changing, but…men still tended to behave as if women were meant to be silent (the Queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had basically been killed for not being silent). Perhaps Shakespeare didn’t want none of that nonsense. And so long as I can believe that about Shakespeare, I can enjoy this play (even as I squirm at parts of it).

Now! What to drink? Yes. This is a play that requires some drinks. Well, you might think I’m weird, but I am recommending a Dark and Stormy. This is a drink made famous by Gosling’s Rum of Bermuda (shout out to Bermuda, where my dad was raised!). It is a mix of their dark rum and ginger beer, served over ice and garnished with a lime. Why, you may ask? That sounds so islandy! And not the Isle of Great Britain, either, that sceptred isle. Trust me, it works. Petruchio’s abuse is the dark, Katherina is the stormy (as is their relationship). It seems like, because of the abuse scenes, this might be a tragic play–or at least a very heavy one–but it ends up being quite humorous despite itself. And, given that there’s more ginger beer (which can be made nonalcoholic and usually is) than rum, this is a surprisingly light drink! See? It works! Gosling’s even makes a pre-made one, if you want to go that route!

Buy the book (play):

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-taming-of-the-shrew-william-shakespeare/1116708752

Buy the booze:

http://www.totalwine.com/eng/product/goslings-black-seal-rum/577175 (the rum)

http://www.totalwine.com/eng/product/goslings-stormy-ginger-beer/108164233 (the ginger beer)

The ready-to-drink version (canned):

http://www.totalwine.com/eng/product/goslings-dark-and-stormy-ready-to-drink/123573745

So, that’s it for me, today! I think I’ve kept you here long enough! Until tomorrow, when we’ll share with you all the best versions of Taming of the Shrew available on the big (or small) screen. (‘Cause sometimes you just wanna watch the movie.)

C

*Petruchio does NOT mean asshole in Esperanto

Monday Muse: Shakespeare and Gender

Greetings, everyone, and welcome to the third edition of August’s Shakespeare Muses! Today, I’m going to dive right into my topic: gender. I know, I typically dance around for a bit typing everything that comes to mind, but I am not doing that today. And for a very good reason: I already wrote the blog I should have saved for today.

You see, the final play we’re seeing while up in Stratford is Taming of the Shrew, a play, along with The Merchant of Venice, that I have always had a hard time loving. Well, just about a month ago, I finally had a breakthrough. I was led to the promised land by God himself, who explained to me that I was allowed to be uncomfortable with the abuse and that Shakespeare would have been uncomfortable with it, too. (Morgan Freeman, guys. I’m not claiming to speak to God, though I can only imagine how pissed He must be at everyone who DOES make that claim.) You know what? Here’s that post. I said it much better in the haze of my discovery.

The Word of God (I couldn’t resist, guys.)

But since I’ve already said everything I wanted to say about Taming of the Shrew, and I’ll be “reviewing” it (it’s all about the alcohol on Fridays and you know it) later this week, what am I supposed to put here? Should I share with you my personal opinion of Shakespeare’s comedies (that they aren’t actually that funny, really, except the Rude Mechanicals, who are hilarious)? Do I think Shakespeare expected his incredibly talented bunch of actors to MAKE it funny? Absolutely. Do I agree with the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s take, as shared during last week’s Monday Muse? Beyond yes. As they said, “we find the tragedies to be much funnier than the comedies.”

What should I write about? I sat in front of the screen for at least an hour earlier, thinking, “Dammit, Muse, today is not the day to abandon me! I need to write about the Bard!” And then…lo, like a gift from Morgan Freeman’s lips, nay, from the Bard’s pen itself, came this article from my good friend.

http://howlround.com/transhakespeare-lisa-wolpe-and-the-art-of-empathy

I try not to let my politics infuse this blog, so please…let’s not make this about the political debate going on about transgender rights. If you read between the lines of pretty much every entry on this blog, you’ll know where A and I stand on pretty much all political issues, and we are not interested in a debate vis a vis…anything. This is about Shakespeare.

Now, if you recall, all of Shakespeare’s parts were played by dudes. All of them. It wasn’t until the Restoration (you know, when Charles II came to the throne after WAY TOO LONG letting the Puritans run things) that women playing women became the norm in England (France and Italy had been doing it for much longer). Imagine, a lady playing Juliet! What novelty! On top of that, Shakespeare was probably part of some weird Elizabethan mob…and a pot smoker. If the man were alive today, he’d probably be hash-tagging #feelthebern.

I actually don’t think there’s anything particularly political in the exploration of Shakespeare through a trans lens. Why? Because his roles are, ultimately, human. Is there anything in the role of Romeo that is intrinsically male? I could make a joke and say his idiotic need to engage Tybalt in the fight that gets Mercutio killed, but really, is the hot-headed and ill-considered need to answer insult with insult (or violence) truly male? Ever heard of a ‘cat fight’? And what about Cordelia’s devotion to her father is inherently female? Is there no way for a male to find filial love–true, pure love such that there will be no lying or groveling to spare Lear’s feelings–within him?

Now, I’m not saying that Shakespeare escaped gender roles. He was not so radical as all that. But, really, what makes Romeo special is not that he is a male, and Juliet’s tragedy is not being female, but being young. Yes, Juliet is special because she is in control of her relationship with Romeo and this was remarkable for Shakespeare’s time, but such things are not ‘womanly’. Females do not own them. If males can play these parts, these ‘paragons of woman-dom’, why can’t that be reversed? What about Macbeth or even Mark Antony is restricted to genetic males? Females can be brought low by ambition and bad advice, and they can similarly be stirred to rage and vengeance on behalf of a loved one brought low. What might we learn about ourselves and these parts if we divorced their sex and gender from the sex and gender of those playing them?

See, as I’ve said before, Shakespeare is great not because he writes great parts for men and great parts for women, but because he writes great parts. I mentioned before that acting Hamlet is like baring one’s naked soul before an audience; it invites the actor–nay, it FORCES the actor–to explore everything within him- or herself and let it all out. Hamlet is Hamlet because Hamlet is human, not because he is a man. And the human, universal nature of Shakespeare’s plays extends to most of his characters, too. (Some characters are better than others, right Titus Andronicus? You killed your own daughter for getting raped, you asshat!) The very fact that TranShakespeare can exist and be so eye-opening for the people involved is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s universality. There is no limit to the way we can perform and enjoy his works. There isn’t even a reason to suggest that Romeo and Juliet must be binary. As the article says: We need to take a risk. Like we did here, we wondered if it would be interesting to throw a bunch of people into a pot and ask, “In how many ways can this work? Oh, in every single way, it works. Every person works.” 

So, I exhort all of you out there to write some Shakespeare. A and I are saving Mercutio’s life because we want to, and because he’s our favorite; changing that one thing meant essentially changing everything else, and learning how far we could go and still recognize these characters. The friend who shared the article with me is playing with As You Like It by using Ganymede not as a disguise, but a revelatory truth of identity for Rosalind. What I took away from this article is not that we should have men play women and women play men, but that we should have everyone play everything. We should push the boundaries of what it means to be these characters and to explore these stories. And not even just gender, but ethnicity, national identity, religion, whatever lens is available for exploration. Shakespeare invites us to be all things because we are all humans; we are all already the thing. Just like the play.

My goodness, I seem to have churned out one of my extra special rambles! Go me! From nothing to something. I love you, Shakespeare! (“And I love thee, random citizen!”)

Tune in on Friday for my recommendation of what to drink with Taming of the Shrew.

C

Silly Sunday: Something Rotten!

Happy Sunday, Nerd Cactus followers! It is with great sadness that I bring this weekend to a close. I spent the last few days visiting New York City and I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Ah, well… Alas the week can only last so long.

While I was in the city, however, I found the perfect Silly Sunday for Shakeapeare month! In the midst of my whirlwind adventure through the city that never sleeps I saw a Broadway show at the St. James theatre entitled: Something Rotten! For those of you who love the Bard, follow our blog, or read Hamlet in high school (that’s all of you, I hope) that line should be pretty recognizable. Of course, it’s not in the context that you’d think as this musical is a farcical romp through 16th century England during a time when Shakespeare was a rock star and struggling writers sought to emulate his genius (which, in the show, is almost all the result of theft).

Following the story of two brothers whose work is constantly overshadowed by “The Bard”, Something Rotten! lays the comedy on thick. And it is magic. Nick and Nigel Bottom (I know!) are in need of a hit since their latest play has been swept out from under them by the notorious “borrower” William Shakespeare. They are in danger of losing their patron, Nick has a baby on the way, and the only person willing to give them money for their production is Shylock the Jew (I know!), who is prohibited from being a patron due to his religion. Nick goes to a soothsayer named Nostradamus (no, not that one, his nephew) in a desperate attempt to find out what audiences will want to see in the future and learns about the Broadway musical. With the knowledge of tap dancing and glittery ensemble numbers Nick sets out to write the world’s very first original musical. Without a brilliant idea his first attempt falls flat so he asks the soothsayer to look into the future and tell him what Shakespeare’s most famous play will be. Thus, Omlette: the Musical is born. Yeah. You know what, I’m gonna leave it at that because it’s incredible to watch and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone.

From the opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” to the gigantic Puritan ensemble dream sequence to any of the various brilliantly choreographed tap numbers, this show has everything. The Shakespeare themed jokes run rampant as do the musical theatre references, but even with the most minimal knowledge of either of these subjects anyone can enjoy the show because it is full of wit, innuendo, and perfectly “egg”xecuted sight gags. The cast is superb, the writing simultaneously poignant and hilarious, and the story continuously pokes fun at the theatrical experience we have held so dear ever since the days of The Globe. If you’re planning a trip to the city, plan to see this show. Otherwise, definitely try and catch it out on tour. Worst case scenario, just listen to the soundtrack and enjoy. It’s infectiously catchy.

Get it here: http://www.amazon.com/Something-Rotten-Various-Artists/dp/B00Y2TEGUA

A

P.S. Here’s the performance of “A Musical” at the 2015 Tony Awards. I wish the quality were better, but it’s a great representation of one of the most absurdly elaborate numbers in the show. Enjoy!