The Taming of the Shrew has been giving Shakespearean directors pause for decades — some scholars even say centuries — with its plotline of an overly masculine man, Petruchio, "taming" Kate, the "shrew" of the title. Director and actor John Bryan, who is directing a production of the play for Threshold Repertory's annual Summer Shakespeare Workshop, is no different. "One of my biggest questions was, 'How do I not make it awful?'" he says.
That's a legitimate and difficult question, as throughout the course of the play Petruchio humiliates Kate at their wedding, starves her, deprives her of pretty clothes, and forces her to agree with anything he says, even if it is patently false — that the sun is the moon, for example, or that an approaching acquaintance is a woman rather than a man. All of this is accomplished not through physical force, but through a kind of reverse psychology on steroids. Kate cannot eat, for example, because according to Petruchio nothing his kitchen produces is good enough for her; she cannot have a new dress because it doesn't fit well enough for someone so beautiful. The sharp-tongued Kate is successfully tamed by the end of the story and closes the play with a speech — really, a lecture to two other women — on why wives should always be obedient to their husbands:
"But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease." (Act V, Scene II)
While there are plenty of critical and scholarly arguments on the question of whether Kate has truly given in to Petruchio's will, or whether the two are, instead, in a surprisingly equitable and companionable relationship, as a 21st century audience member it can be hard not to be shocked by such a statement of subservience.
"When you first read it, you're like 'Oh my god,'" Bryan says. "I'm approaching it by trying to find the humanity in the main characters, Kate and Petruchio. There's a temptation to play it up for every single joke, and therefore make everyone one level — make Kate this little fireball and Petruchio this loud, obnoxious jock or frat boy. But if you find the humanity, dig into their relationships with other people, I think it makes the situation more understandable and engages people so they can look past that first layer."
And Bryan's had plenty of extra opportunities to explore the deeper elements of Petruchio's personality. He's not only directing, he's also playing the male lead.
Playing opposite Bryan is Blair Cadden, who is also the founder of the local theater company 5th Wall Productions. As someone who describes herself as a feminist, she's worked hard to understand more about why Kate is the way she is and what she might see in her relationship with Petruchio. "For me, it's been about trying to figure out what underneath the scary exterior makes her that way. Why does she feel like this is the best way for her to interact with the world? Obviously, that's character backstory, and not necessarily something the audience will see, but, hopefully, you see the vulnerability behind the yelling, the insecurity that's causing her to lash out."
As part of the Summer Shakespeare Workshop, Cadden, Bryan, and the rest of the show's cast worked with teacher Chris Marino, a UNC-Wilmington faculty member who formerly taught master acting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Since a big part of Threshold's program is education, Marino, who has been involved in the program for each of its four years, teaches Threshold's actors about everything from Shakespearean monologues to how to embrace the poetic rhythm of Shakespeare's lines. This play, like all of Threshold's Summer Shakespeare productions, features both experienced actors like Bryan and Cadden as well as people who've never performed, which makes Marino's classes extremely helpful.
Hopefully, Bryan says, this production, and Threshold's Shakespeare program at large, will help make Shakespeare more accessible not only to local actors, but to local audiences as well. Indeed, Holy City Shakespeare, which is currently on hiatus, is the only other Charleston theater that offers Shakespeare productions with any regularity. "I attribute the lack of Shakespeare here to a lack of appreciation," Bryan says. "The general public knows Shakespeare, or knows of Shakespeare, but because it's such a high shelf people don't generally try to reach for it."