Stagehouse Theatre turns Shakespeare into a modern day classic performance

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What is Shakespearian Katharina, aka “The Shrew,” doing in the middle of a twenty first century brewery house, bikes parked outside, a “Falstaff Brewery” sign hanging from the ceiling, high bar stools weathered by talkative surfers, what is this woman doing here wearing an English checkered belt up dress hanging just bellow her knees barely covering the top of her riding boots, hair mocking a half up princess hair do, frosted spikes and all? And yes, eyeglasses falling off her nose. She is being tamed, that’s what’s happening.

What is Shakespearian Katharina, aka “The Shrew,” doing in the middle of a twenty first century brewery house, bikes parked outside, a “Falstaff Brewery” sign hanging from the ceiling, high bar stools weathered by talkative surfers, what is this woman doing here wearing an English checkered belt up dress hanging just bellow her knees barely covering the top of her riding boots, hair mocking a half up princess hair do, frosted spikes and all? And yes, eyeglasses falling off her nose. She is being tamed, that’s what’s happening. By whom, may I ask? By the very talented and amazingly creative students at the Grossmont College Theatre and Arts Department’s production of “Taming of The Shrew” all through this week.

For those honorable ladies and gentlemen who already know the story, skip to the next paragraph. The young lads in need for a briefing take note that this is a very problematic and controversial play to dare bring on the stage in this time and age or as the master play writer would have it, “True is it that we have seen better days.”

Beautiful Bianca wants to get married, but she cannot do so until her very stubborn, incredibly outspoken and righteously angry sister Katharina accepts a husband. The problem is, Katharina does not want to get married. The bigger problem is, neither any of her suitors, because, to put it mildly even for the 16th century when this play was written, she was not just any shrew, but “The Shrew.”

From the many suitors who only eyed the dowry and are willing to put up with the shrew (and fail), there is Petruchio, with a master plan. Would he be able to get the girl and inherit the attractive wealth that comes with her? The treacherous Petruchio, who now days would be labeled as a toxic man, an abuser displaying at least one of the many Cluster B personality disorders all magazines for women are warning us against, employs questionable methods to make Katharina aka Kate to finally submit to being tamed (read, “controlled, subdued, made to be a doormat”) and call her husband “my master” in a final monologue that causes the director of the play, Brian Rickel, “to cringe every time I read it or I hear it.”

Then why pick such a story, if the long lasting effect is of disgust and horror of the ways men used to threat women in the past and still do in the present? “It’s the first Shakespeare I ever did when I was ten years old at the Pioneer Elementary School.  To me, although it’s about all these horrible things, it also makes a point to modern men and I love it.” Petruchio refuses to feed Katharina, so what’s to love about it? Not much in terms of the story, Rickel points out. However, “if you can make a modern man in this world, in this political climate, in 2017 to sit and watch how some of them threat women and make them sit through it with their wives next to them, I think we won something, right?” Right.

The actors in the Theatre program at Grossmont College did a phenomenal job bringing this modern version of the Shakespearian play to our San Diego audience. Every actor performed in such a vibrant, playful and profound manner and brought such enthusiasm and depth to this very difficult story, all students challenging themselves to get into the characters in the most authentic way, although the characters’ beliefs or behavior were antagonistic to the actors’ ways.

How was it for a young, strong and independent Jillian Jones to mesh with Katharina and try to identify with a woman who was such a singular being in such archaic world? “There were parts when it was really hard for me to get into it, to feel so angry, to feel treated that way,” says Jones, adding that “in the same time, it was also a cathartic experience to get to scream and yell and announce to the world that this is wrong.” What choices did Jones have to make for the final monologue that’s cringe worthy? “We had to chose between being really tamed and being sarcastic about the whole thing, while having Petruchio on the farce, and we decided to do a little bit of both. More like, hey, guys, take a look at this; this is ridiculous. We don’t live like this and it’s never going to be like this again. Women are coming up in the world and we are only getting stronger.”

Tranio, servant to Lucentio, played by an incredibly resourceful Isai Luna, an actor who broke into the theatre only few years ago, faced a big challenge that has to do with class, as he pretends to be a rich man to help his master. “ I see him mocking the upper class, he is very uptight, he is doing his effeminate hand gestures, because that’s how he imagines the whole thing, while he still has these quarks of a servant, he bows to everyone he sees.” Luna confesses this is his first encounter with Shakespeare and it was a difficult process to “get the language and to define the character.”

Bianca is Katharina’s sister and she is wearing floral pink clam-diggers pants. Baptista, the two girls’ mother, looks like she could be working in any of the accounting offices around town, dressed casual business. Men are wearing suits. All the costumes are a mixture of hints from a Victorian era and contemporary clothing. Petruchio walks around at one point with his pants up, lined up with a red border reminiscing of a circus clown. The set could be any of the East County brewery houses Rickel likes to visit, because of the sense of community he gets to experience, “with all the people around, exchanging ideas and sharing stories.” Why the need to modernize most every Shakespeare play we see now days? “I only wanted to do that because in this hipster kind of world, in the San Diego brewing houses, the bike today is as important as the horse was back then. “

Rickel also introduced a stage narrator in the play to help the audience by offering some “anchoring points,” because people think this is a two-acts play, but it’s really a five-act play. “Other than the introduction, the narrator and the fact that I changed some language to reflect a more modern culture (bikes instead of horses), I didn’t change anything.”

Rickel picked only controversial songs to underline the theme and his intentions were to “to make sure the audience was humming along with really sweet songs that are about terrible things because I wanted them to think. “ So, when you are going to listen to Robin Thicke’s Blured Lines and automatically mumble “I know you want it/The way you grab me/Must wanna get nasty” or Cat Steven’s “Don’t be a bad girl” from “Wild World”, now you know you’ve been shrewdly played. 

Taming of The Shrew at Grossmont College Stagehouse Theatre

May 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20 at 7:30 p.m.

May 13 & 20 at 2:00 p.m.

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