The Taming of the Shrew is a tricky* play. Over the past several months, the production team has engaged in more than a few debates over the play’s content, plot, heroes, and lessons—there were no fistfights, but we came close. We reckoned that the danger and passion contained within this text are infectious. Our challenge became how best to represent the menace, vulnerability, risk, resistance, and sheer guts it takes to forge a human connection of Shakespearean proportions. Love, as Shakespeare presents it, is not easy.
There may be those who question the association of Shrew with love. Any play whose title announces the intent to squelch the female voice, to subdue feminine power, hardly indicates romance (she writes hopefully). But a reader needs to move only slightly beyond that title to realize that the transformation that will characterize Katherine is available to—and desirable for—most of the characters on stage. In Shakespeare’s play and in our theater that transformation begins in a bar.
Shakespeare’s Induction to the play consists of two scenes in which a drunk Christopher Sly is duped into believing he’s an affluent Lord, master, and husband. A “pleasant comedy” is to be performed for him (Shrew), but we recognize that the world as he knows it is already built on performance: the authentic Lord casts a young man to play Sly’s wife, direction is given, men are costumed, a set is put in place. Sly’s assumption of his new role invites us to see the ever-present possibility for people to change.
Though the Induction is not a part of our production, we thought long and hard about the ideas communicated by this frame. We considered the forces that prompt transformation and the reasons people desire and resist it. We imagined (and shared experiences of) the humor and anxiety that come from shifts in marital and economic status, gender, and identity. We valued the irony indicated by Sly and, perhaps most significantly, we noted the potential and pleasure marked by a new role.
To underscore these sentiments, Aaron has enlisted the compelling sounds of the unmatched Cliff Eberhardt, who composed and performs music for this production. Cliff is our “Blind Balladeer”—part busker, part prophet. He turns our eye to human hope and error:
I can hear some fool on a balcony
Just a Shakespeare drunk killing poetry
I think I know
what you’re dreaming of
That kind of love
Perhaps part of the difficulty with this play is that there are several kinds of love within it and we may be reluctant to discern them all. Petruchio’s taming methods may be amusing to some, but it’s unnerving to try to frame them as loving gestures. Of course, this is one of Shakespeare’s early plays, and he’ll go on to test the boundaries of love with even greater intensity (think The Winter’s Tale).
The contrast between those boundaries around which folks navigate and the openness of the western frontier is one reason why setting Shrew in Deadwood territory makes sense to us. It’s a physical world, a rugged one, a world in which people have cause to be hard. When love (and the vulnerability that accompanies it) is introduced in this setting, we expect a struggle. Again, from Eberhardt:
I need a little kick
I need a little bite
I need a little push
And I need a little shove
Or it doesn’t really feel like love
The love described here isn’t idealized and it isn’t necessarily pretty. For each of the couples, however, it offers something beyond their previous experience. Love is a catalyst for change. Lovers are made vulnerable, yes, but that’s not to say they are weak. We learn alongside the play’s heroes that sometimes it takes more courage to surrender than it does to fight.
* “Tricky” is director Aaron Posner’s favorite word (uses too numerous to cite). Any use of this term applied to any Folger production has Posner at its source.