A&T’s Taming of the Shrew carefully reimagines problematic play

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Petruchio, played by Ishmael Muhammad (left) courts Katharina, played by Jaylnn Pasley (right) in A&T’s Taming of the Shrew.

“For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,” says Petruchio as he courts Katharina.

Thus begins the cat-and-mouse game between the playboy Petruchio and the argumentative Katharina in Shakespeare’s, The Taming of the Shrew. A&T theater debuted a rendition of the comedic play on Valentine’s Day at the Paul Robeson Theater.

The show opens to a crowd of students, couples and families with a promise to tell the romantic story of how a cocky man tames a mulish, obstinate woman, transforming her into an obedient wife so that her demure younger sister can, in turn, be married.

Baby blue pastels along with rich hues of purple colors the set while Katharina and her younger sister, Bianca, adorn bright pink wigs and fairy-tale costumes.

The whole thing feels a bit like watching an absurd story in a different dimension, a kind of dreamlike state.

“I didn’t want people to feel like it was too much of a reality,” says Xulee-Vanecia J. Love, the show’s director. “I wanted it to feel like watching a cartoon, and that it’s not real life with real people. It’s more like caricatures. It’s a made-up world that wasn’t too serious.”

Love says putting on a play about a man taming a woman in 2019 was a challenge.

“I think it’s important for theater to always be active,” she says. “It’s more than just entertainment. But this show is comedic. It gives us time to laugh when things are really bad.”

She says both her and the cast made important changes to the show to leaven its misogyny. In the original story, Petruchio, as Katharina’s suitor, abuses her both physically and psychologically to “break” her. Love says that in order for the play to be successful, and to ensure that the actors were comfortable, all dialogue that seemed offensive to women was taken out.

“We changed some of the language like ‘Women are weak’ to ‘Women are compassionate,’” she says. “We put in words like ‘strength’ and ‘compassion’ and ‘surrender’ instead of ‘obedience.’”

Some of the cast members, including Ishmael Muhammad, who plays the lead role of Petruchio, also suggested changes in the wording.

“He would bring me things that he was not comfortable saying,” she says. “We were really collaborative.”

Love also made the decision to cast several women into roles that were traditionally played by men.

“I wanted to help break up the misogyny,” she says. “I wanted women to be able to relate to the roles.”

Working with an all-black cast on a traditional Shakespearean play has been a dream of Love’s for a long time.

A black woman herself, Love played the lead role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in graduate school in Nevada.

“People were mad,” she recalls. “People walked out. It’s important to do this work and show people that Shakespeare is so universal. Anybody can do it. Any culture, any race. It’s so open and fluent now that we don’t have anybody to answer to.”

In directing The Taming of the Shrew, Love took creative liberties in the choices of set and costume design but also in the way both the speech and the acting was delivered.

While she retains most of the Shakespearean language — which makes it hard at times to understand the story if you were unfamiliar with it — the actors also infuse their own personalities and modernize their roles.

A man tuning an instrument sings lines from a Drake song while another raps a wedding procession. Several of the cast members weave in modern slang into their Shakespearean speech.

The lead roles of Petruchio, played by Muhammad, and Katharina, played by Jaylnn Pasley, spark chemistry on stage. Rather than seeming one-sided — with Petruchio aggressively chasing Katharina for the entire play and “taming” her — audience members get the sense that by letting him pursue her, Katharina is in turn, taming Petruchio as well.

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting,” says Katharina with a hint of sass as she playfully spars with Petruchio. Later, when she agrees with Petruchio that the sun is the moon, it’s like watching a mother give in to a petulant child rather than actually believing in the falsehood.

“She knows she’s right,” Love says. “She knows he’s immature.”

Other standouts include Grumio, an outlandish servant played by Evan Muton, as well as the money-hungry Baptista Minola, Katharina and Bianca’s father, played by Thomas Martin. 

And while the play still maintains its original storyline of a man “taming” a shrew, on Valentine’s Day, Love says she wanted to give a comedic, satirized view of how absurd relationships can be.

“I think Shakespeare meant that too,” she says. “It was originally a play within a play. It was meant to be satire or commentary on the time. I wanted it to feel like a fantasy.”

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