The Armstrong State University Masquers theater troupe continues its celebration of William Shakespeare with one of the Bard’s most popular comedies, “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Set in Italy, the story revolves around the courtship of Petruchio and Katherine, the latter of which is the headstrong “shrew.” Petruchio’s pursuit of Katherine, or taming, becomes the primary plot line as other suitors line up for her younger sister in the patriarchal-heavy society of the Renaissance.
The play has had several modern adaptations. Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” was one of the more famous ones. The 1999 film “10 Things I Hate About You” was also based on the play.
Director Peter Mellen decided to approach the staging of the Masquers’ production with an eye toward authenticity. In modern theater, directors worldwide often attempt to update Shakespeare’s plays by changing the setting to attract a modern audience, while typically leaving the Elizabethan early modern English intact.
“This was a rather unusual for me and Shakespeare in general,” Mellen said. “I decided to do it the way Shakespeare wrote it and leave it in its own time and place. We’re not doing it in 1920s Chicago.
“We’re actually doing it where and when Shakespeare said it was. We’re doing it in Italy during the Renaissance. I thought we ought to do that every once in a while,” he said with a laugh.
Mellen and his band of students focused on two central ideas in rehearsal: this is a comedy and a love story. A romantic comedy, if you will.
“If there was any questions in terms of interpretation or how to play a line, you try and make it as funny as humanly possible,” Mellen said. “That was our first guiding principle. The second one was it really is a love story. At some point in time, we and the characters of Kate and Petruchio actually discover they are really in love with each other and are meant for each other. I think a lot of people forget that this is a love story. It makes perfect sense, given who they are.”
Scholars often label “The Taming of the Shrew” as an overtly misogynistic play. While true to the time period, the patriarchal structure of family life in those times can be a heavy pill to swallow in our modern society.
Katherine’s father, Baptista Minola, is essentially attempting to sell her off to anyone who can deal with her “un-ladylike” behavior. Eliminating and ignoring her desires as a person, the men of the play barter and scheme over her like property.
Mellen’s approach to this issue was to focus on his two guiding principles. However, Katherine’s taming needed a bit of taming. To accomplish this, Mellen and company examined the complexities of the character. By asking questions about who she was and how she became like this, they discovered some interesting truths on which to form the identity and depth of the character.
“For the most part, what we’re trying to show is not necessarily Kate becomes obedient and therefore she’s good. She becomes somebody who doesn’t argue with you just for the sake of arguing or fights with you just for the sake of fighting with you,” Mellen said.
“We were looking at her relationship with her dad, who loves her quite a bit. We were trying to figure out how Kate became this person. Apparently, there’s no Mrs. Baptista. So probably Kate, being the oldest sister, became the one who helped take care of and raise Bianca. Dad probably had no clue how to raise a daughter. Kate is a tomboy. She speaks her mind. She’s independent. She’s feisty. All of which of father appreciated and nurtured as they were growing up.”
This simple insight into her character reveals much deeper personality traits; ones Shakespeare might not have intended, but are completely plausible. In a sense, through this interpretation, the Masquers have taken a typically one-dimensional female character and breathed new life into her personality.
Petruchio also has a similar character arc, which Mellen and his actors worked to discover and properly display.
“The way the script is written and what Shakespeare says, is the only reason Petruchio gets into this in the first place is he’s looking for a wife with money and he does not care anything about the woman,” Mellen said. “He just cares about the money that comes with her.”
Digging into the script, they looked for the point where Petruchio begins to change and from there, they were able to form his identity and a foundation on which to build the love story and the inherent comedy.
“I don’t think you’re doing Shakespeare justice if you only do one,” Mellen said. “If it’s funny, that’s one thing, but it doesn’t have any connection to anything. Or you can play the love story and forget it’s funny. He wrote a romantic comedy — he wants both.”
IF YOU GO
What: Armstrong Masquers present “The Taming of the Shrew”
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1-3; 3 p.m. Dec. 4
Where: Armstrong State University, Jenkins Hall Black Box Theatre
Cost: $12, discounts available