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Wild At Heart

July 16, 2007

It's ironic that such an uber-liberal city as San Francisco should be the site of one of most brazen and brilliant versions of Shakespeare's uber-un-politically-correct comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, I've seen to date. The Cutting Ball's production directed by Rob Melrose and starring Paige Rogers and David Sinaiko as confrontational spouses Katerina and Petruchio, not only meets Shakespeare's problematic comedy head-on with vicious humor but makes it disarmingly contemporary -- and local.

Shrew is not an easy play to stage. First, there are structural issues. The play opens with a "framing device" or "induction scene" -- a plot involving a drunkard who is tricked by a lord, upon waking from his ale-infused stupor, into thinking he's a wealthy man. Then we move into the main section -- a "play within a play" -- in which a group of actors perform a moral comedy for the would-be-lord telling the story about how a shrewish, disobedient woman, Katerina, is brought to heel by her strong-willed husband, Petruchio. The main story is intertwined with a complex sub-plot concerning the wooing of the shrew's well-behaved younger sister, Bianca, by several suitors. This story involves so much disguise, make-believe and mixed identities that it can be hard to follow what's going on and who's saying what to whom at any given time. It doesn't help, of course, that several of the characters have very similar names (Grumio / Gremio; Lucentio / Vincentio etc,) And to make matters even more structurally awkward, the framing story never reappears at the end. The drunkard's presence fizzles out from the play like flat champagne.

Then there's the fact that the play is horribly un-politically-correct. Few contemporary directors have figured out how to tell the story of Katerina's apparent conversion by the end of the play from outspoken gal about town to subservient housewife. Her final speech, in which she calmly tells her friends and family that a woman's place is in the home and that wives should demonstrate the love and trust they bare for their husbands by "plac[ing] your hand beneath your husband’s foot," is hard to sit through without cringing.

As a result, it's tricky to stage Shrew today without apologizing for its politics. Many companies avoid it completely. Some directors and academics argue that it shouldn't be staged at all in this day and age.

Instead of shying away from the play's challenges, Melrose sees the myriad mixed identities and complex sexual politics as a prism through which to view San Francisco culture. From the moment the play begins, we are introduced to different sides of our local street life. A bondage-wearing gay couple strolls past arm in arm; three hip-hop dancers break out their moves in front of a gaudy graffiti'd metal security barrier; a young Google-type employee zips past on his scooter. The lord in the induction scene (who later becomes the subservient Katerina) is a strutting, panther-skin-coat-wearing diva, while the drunkard (who in turn transforms into the overbearing patriarch Petruchio) is a close-to-comatose tramp.

But while the fluidity and variety of personas perfectly captures San Francisco and the city's open attitudes towards identity, the production's ideas extend far beyond the local theme. Very soon, we realize that there's a dark side to the porosity of the characters' identities -- and, thankfully (as well as very originally,) it has little to do with hackneyed questions about feminism.

From the scene changes, performed like ad breaks on MTV by the hip-hop dancers, to Petruchio and his servant Grumio's sudden, and apparently involuntary, habit of sliding into pastiches of scenes from famous movies, we start to see the extent to which we are colored by our culture. The characters in the play are so saturated by the media that they no longer know which way is up. Neither do we. And, intriguingly, neither does Rogers' Kate.

Rogers was made to play this role. She's bombastic and feisty and everything a great Kate should be. The scene in which she tortures her sister with a pair of hair straightening tongs is viciously funny. But she's never over-bearing. Her face shows signs that she's thinking everything through. It takes her a while to register Petruchio's various mad ramblings. You can see the character processing them carefully, trying to understand if what she's heard is really true. When it comes to delivering the final, difficult speech, we're as thrown into turmoil as she is. Rogers delivers those final awkward lines as if she means them. There's empathy behind her voice. She seems to have found some kind of respect for her husband. And yet we don't for a minute believe that she has become a good, little wife. There's enough animation in her smile and eyes to suggest that there might be more to this woman than we think. And in fact there is: If we recall the opening, she's a lord.

The Cutting Ball's production of Shrew is only on for two weeks. Having performed in small black-box venues like The Exit so far, Shrew represents the company's first foray into staging a play in a larger space at The Magic Theatre. If I had my say, the house would be full every night.


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