Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The male dream of a do-what-you're-told woman

What is it about men wanting tame women? Can it be genetic? Can it be cultural? And can it be any clearer over the last couple of months that, to some men, it's a rhetorical question?

Rhetorical or not, the question itself seems to be everywhere, from cromagnon commentators who are so dumb they confuse sluts (who do it for free) with prostitutes (who do it for money), to the bi-coastal trend-frenzy around the women of Mad Men (which, for those of you who do not live in New York or Los Angeles, is the current title holder of The Greatest Must-Watch Show On Television That Is Not Game Of Thrones, True Blood, Or Dexter When That Starts Again).

It's also the question close to the heart of Shakespeare's Taming Of The Shrew, which is currently getting a lively and hilarious production at Theatre for a New Audience. (I say "close to the heart" because, as with everything in Shakespeare--even early Shakespeare--the heart of a play is not in its argument, but in its arguers.) This particular production is set in frontier America at the end of the 19th Century, as if it were being done by a traveling troupe of players at some place like the Number Ten Saloon in Deadwood, or the saloon on that muddy main street in Shane. And oddly enough, the very American setting turns it into a very American play-- Andy Grotelueschen's Petruchio is like a three-way bank shot between a mountain man, a Civil War veteran, and Melville's Confidence Man, while Maggie Siff's Kate has all the justified resentment of a woman who faced and stared down hardship after hardship while crossing the country in a covered wagon, only to be relegated to sewing bees. (Potential thesis topic: women with sharp tongues are like gunslingers--if you can't domesticate 'em, then you have to ostracize 'em.)  

The play is also done with the Christopher Sly Induction, and imports a couple or three asides from the earlier Taming Of A Shrew where Sly, watching the performance as one of the audience, comments on and gets caught up in the action.  Again, this not only works perfectly in the frontier setting, but it works for the play as well.  There's something about this distancing--the assumed premise that this is a "performance"--that makes Petruchio's bullying farcical, instead of a plea for mandated marital restraining orders or Social Services intervention.

Whether that's a good thing or not is something which is not directly addressed in this particular production, unlike the 2007 all-male Propeller Company Shrew that played at BAM, aka "The Three Stooges Do Stockholm Syndrome," where by the end Kate had all the fire literally beaten out of her.  In the TNA production, Kate's fire gets channeled and focused, so that what begins as a roaring blaze ends as a white-hot flame.  

In the play’s preoccupation with money, it’s as close to a Jonson play as Shakespeare ever wrote, long before he met Jonson. But because he’s Shakespeare, the money stuff disappears the moment the wedding is finalized (because if it doesn’t, then you get the second half of The Quiet Man, which is all about dowries and obligations).  (Potential Thesis topic: The Quiet Man as an answer play to Taming Of The Shrew.)   Once all the talk of money and dowries disappears, you get something Jonson probably laughed at, and not in a good way: an equation between taming your wife and taming a falcon, right down to the details of rewarding good behavior, punishing bad behavior, and starving the bird into submission. The fact that this type of training is specialized knowledge now, which it wasn't in the 1590's, puts a modern audience at a real disadvantage in understanding that falcons aren't actually neutered or domesticated by their "taming"--on the contrary, they totally retain their falcon qualities, but their falcon nature is directed towards a purpose.  Just like Kate, in the end, is directed to speak out to her sister and the widow about what rights and duties a woman owes her husband.

Ah, that final monologue.  It's a killer, isn't it?  Depending on how you play it, it can be anything from a scathing indictment of male supremacy to a Stockholm Syndrome embrace of it. Personally I think the truth is somewhere in the middle--that this is the speech that shames and tames Petruchio.  The most devastating version I've ever seen was by Josie Lawrence in the '95 RSC Shrew that played at Stratford.  (She won the Peggy Ashcroft Award for her Kate, and deservedly so; not only was she fantastic, but that Shrew was one of the top five productions of anything Shakespeare that I've ever seen.) Siff's version in this production is alive in the best sense--you can see her thinking about what she's going to say, and what points she wants to make, and in the end, when she offers her hand to Petruchio, it's actually poignant.  Which is not very easy to pull off.

Overall, the show is fun, it's funny, and it works--which is also not very easy to pull off when you do this particular play.  Will you come out of it with a piercing insight into why some men would prefer all women everywhere to be silent and docile?  Nope.  This production keeps the arguers in front of the argument.  So don't go expecting to get pissed off--go expecting to be entertained, and you'll have a good time*.

*(But if you do want to get pissed off, give me a call, and we can talk about what DC Comics is doing to Wonder Woman.)