Letter to our patrons: The Taming of the Shrew
In my opinion, Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew as a genre comedy that just happened to involve the “taming” of a young wife. He was working from a pre-made plot, common at the time, and incorporating comic conventions that called for disguise and marital transaction. There was no need to be psychological about Kate’s conversion at the end of the play, or to provide Bianca and her suitors with realistic motives for their intrigues. But ever since Shakespeare, directors have wrestled with how to stage this play, just as audiences and critics have struggled to interpret it. When Ed Sylvanus Iskandar told me he wanted to direct Shrew, I had to ask him: Why? What do you think this play means? I wanted to share a few thoughts with you on Ed and his exciting ideas for this production:
- I first encountered Ed’s work when I went to his production of The Mysteries at the Flea Theater. All of my friends in New York raved about this young director, and it was easy to see why. Working with 50 contemporary playwrights to adapt the stories of the Bible over five hours, Ed created an enveloping universe that I didn’t want to leave. It was a production of staggering scope and imagination, and I knew immediately that I wanted to see him working on a scale commensurate to his vision.
- One of the first things we discussed about Shrew was his connection to Kate as an “other” and his understanding of her final speech as complex but earnest. Ed’s desire is to unearth deeper relationships in the play, inner lives that look beyond the conventions of genre comedy and testify to their own emotional truth. Among the many surprises in this Shrew are new stories and connections that you may have never considered.
- The main vehicle Ed found for opening up the psyche of each character is the songs of Tony® and Grammy® winner Duncan Sheik, one of Ed’s longtime collaborators. Sheik’s songs will function as the soliloquies denied to Kate, Bianca and other characters in the play. Now, many have asked me: is it a musical or not? I can say that it is emphatically not a musical treatment of the play. It is rather a Shakespeare play with songs by Duncan Sheik. This is nothing new, but we are perhaps the first to do it with Shrew.
- As an extension of Ed’s desire to confront Kate’s final speech and delve into the inner lives of his characters, he chose to stage the play with an all-male cast. The troubling treatment of women in this play often becomes the sole focus of a production. By using a single-gender cast, Ed hopes to shift the focus from the battle of the sexes to the internal struggle over identity and belonging, exploring the masculine within the feminine, and vice versa. As fate would have it, Phyllida Lloyd is directing the play at The Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park this summer in New York, with an all-female cast. Perhaps homosocial casting is one new directorial paradigm for this play which still vexes us so.
- I also want to encourage you to arrive at the theatre earlier than usual, and be prepared to experience the Harman space in a new way. Ed has designed the frame of the play, as he did in his work at the Flea, to be elastic and capable of stretching into the audience, before and after the official start time. I don’t want to give too much away, but you can expect some wares to buy, some food to taste and most importantly, an occasion to celebrate. Visit ShakespeareTheatre.org/Shrew for more information on what’s in store. In fact, our new website has a wealth of information to explore, including a Watch & Listen section where you can see me interviewing Ed and other content from behind the scenes, as well as engaging articles about the show on Asides Online.
As you may know, this season has been partly about new experiences. We have prided ourselves on presenting productions of classical works that enlighten and entertain, but that also make us look at the plays very, very differently. We have collaborated with artists from all over the world, each with different ways of working, with differing notions of what makes theatre vital, and I think we all learned a great deal. Most of all, we have a thoughtful, committed and smart audience who keeps coming, no matter how we challenge them. Above all, we’re very grateful to you.
I look forward to seeing you at the theatre.