The battle of the sexes has often been fought theatrically with men and women vying for the upper hand. Perhaps the purest example of this classic contest is to be found in Shakespeare’s 1590 comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, one of his earliest plays. It’s the story of a hot-tempered woman, Katherine, whose need for a husband is obstructing several lovers in pursuit of her younger sister. Petruchio, a highly macho fellow, is recruited to win her over, which he pursues with a battle of wills.
The story ends with Katherine making a speech of seeming acquiescence, an ending that didn’t sit well with critics or audiences for years. It wasn’t until 1887 that a production of Taming of the Shrew was mounted in the United States. In the 20th century, it became a star vehicle for famous married actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Their rough-and-tumble, farcical 1925 production played for over a year on Broadway and then toured. But even then, many people were put off by the show’s overt misogyny.
The reality behind Lunt and Fontanne’s performances, however, was that their marriage was coming undone, and they were often truly battling backstage. That situation became the impetus for the Tony Award winning 1948 musical, Kiss Me, Kate, which told the story of two recently divorced actors, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, playing Katherine and Petruchio in a musical adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. About a third of the show, which features some of Cole Porter’s greatest songs, is scenes from an out-of-town tryout of the musical based on Shakespeare’s play. Many scenes and songs are underscored by Fred and Lilli’s antipathy that constantly creeps into their onstage performances
Kiss Me, Kate features a secondary plot, a pair of gangsters in pursuit of a gambling debt that another player has assigned to Fred. Fascinated by the ins and outs of theater and the classic play, they perform the hilarious lowbrow song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” offering advice about using classical titles and lines to win women’s affections.
In March, thanks to two Cincinnati theater companies, playgoers can see both shows: Cincinnati Shakespeare will present The Taming of the Shrew and Cincinnati Landmark Productions is staging Kiss Me, Kate. Interestingly, both productions are staged by women, and they have opinions about their respective shows.
Jemma Alix Levy is staging Shrew for Cincy Shakes. A veteran director who teaches theater at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, Levy is working on the play for the fourth time. In a recent phone conversation with CityBeat she confessed that it’s one of her favorite Shakespeare plays. Despite some scholars’ negativity about it, “I do not shy away from it all,” she said.
“I think it’s a feminist play, which I realize is a controversial statement. If you read Shakespeare’s text carefully and if you know his works in general, he consistently writes women who are the smartest person onstage,” Levy said. “That he would write about a woman who was meek and abused would be crazy to me. If you read carefully, you realize Katherine is the smartest person in the play by far. She’s smarter than Petruchio, and he falls in love with her because of that. But he doesn’t know how to make it work, since he’s used to women who are meek and mild.”
When Levy staged Shrew the first time, she belonged to a book club populated by professional women. When they learned she was directing it, they were shocked, perceiving that it as misogynistic. She urged them to read it, discuss it, and see her production. Their minds were changed.
“I issue an invitation, not a warning, about this play: People have misconceptions of what it is,” Levy said. “I was so pleased to have these women say, ‘That was not what I thought it was going to be at all.’”
“By the end of the play, it is one of the happiest relationships that Shakespeare wrote,” Levy continues. “I think the audience is intended to believe that this was going to be an incredibly happy and very equal marriage. You don’t have to change much to make that happen.”
Directing and choreographing Kiss Me, Kate at the Covedale is Genevieve Perrino, a Cincinnati native who’s performed in Chicago, New York and elsewhere. She’s back in town and working for Cincinnati Landmark Productions. To prepare to put this production together, she not only spent time rewatching the show’s 1953 movie but also took in recorded versions of The Taming of the Shrew to understand how it fits within Kiss Me, Kate.
She said she learned more about the 1925 Lunt-Fontanne production of Shrew, since it inspired the creators of the musical, especially book-writer Bella Spewack.
“The musical is definitely an amalgam, not straightforward Shakespeare,” Perrino said in a phone conversation with CityBeat. “But the lines between Shakespeare and people who really existed were definitely blurred.”
“Reading Kiss Me, Kate for the first time, I had some feelings about the way women are treated,” she continued. “We will be leveling that playing field. Lilli and Fred will definitely go after each other, one on one. She goes after him just as hard as he goes after her.”
Perrino believes Shakespeare’s comedy is turned into a true farce.
“It’s almost more Midsummer Night’s Dream sometimes than Taming of the Shrew because of the backstage antics. It is truly a musical theater classic,” Perrino said. “It has everything, including ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare,’ one of the best songs ever written!”
Perrino says she loves how the action flips back and forth between backstage hijinks and efforts to stage a theater piece, almost a tug of war between the story from 1590 and the reality of the 1940s.
“That’s a big part of the fun,” she noted.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and Cincinnati Landmark Productions are collaborating on ticket sales. Purchasing a ticket to see one production will be good for a discount on a ticket to the other.
The Taming of the Shrew, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, will run March 3-25 at the Otto M. Budig Theater, 1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Info: cincyshakes.com.
Kiss Me, Kate, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions, will run March 16-April 8 at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, 4990 Glenway Ave., West Price Hill. Info: cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.
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