WSC Avant Bard is presenting a world premiere and critics have lavished praise on its playwright.
“Jonelle Walker’s vivid, artfully unnerving TAME. is a retort to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew,” raved Celia Wren in The Washington Post. (The title of the play, by the way, is all caps and ends with a full-stop.) “Trust me that this is a 5 star play,” Kelly McCorkendale concurred on DCTheatreScene.com.
I read with interest a blog-post that Walker wrote for the Avant Bard web page. In it, she spoke about the importance to her that the production team working on her play inspired by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew be predominately female.
It occurred to me (as the only person in the world who has seen everything ever produced at WSC) that this falls into a company tradition of women directors and playwrights engaging that vexing play from the Shakespearean canon.
In 2002, WSC presented a new script by Allyson Currin called Learning Curves, in which the character of Kate from Shrew appears to, and interacts with, a contemporary academic who is the apex of a romantic triangle situation. Lee Mikeska Gardner directed that world premiere.
The one time the company produced Shrew was in 1999. Delia Taylor directed an all-female cast (including a young Kate Norris as Petruchio). Our Dramaturg, Cam Magee, wrote a wonderfully inventive framing device to contextualize the casting choice.
Gardner and Taylor have left town, but Currin and Magee remain. I thought it would be interesting to bring them together with Walker and talk about their various attitudes toward and reactions to The Taming of the Shrew.
Walker began the conversation, held before the start of rehearsals, by describing the genesis of TAME..
Walker, author of TAME., 2016: At the end of my college career at American [University,] I was President of the Shakespeare Troupe. As part of our season, we did Taming of the Shrew. A colleague of mine was directing it, and he was telling us, ‘This is going to be the version where it’s very clear that Kate and Petruchio are in it together. They’re working together, and it’s not about domination at all.’ And then, by the time we got into the dress rehearsals, I was getting very frustrated, because he and I were seeing two totally different stories. He was seeing a liberated Kate who is part of this, deciding it for herself, and I was seeing someone who was being tortured, who’s saying, ‘Let me give you my hand so you can stomp on it, if that’s what you want to do.’ I started to think: What does it actually mean to be a woman who’s a shrew? What does that even look like? Because, of course, when we look back at Katerina, she’s kind of difficult, she’s kind of tough…
Magee, dramaturg of The Taming of the Shrew, 1999: Well, what she says is, ‘You’re a fool.’ That’s the worst that really comes out of her mouth. ‘You’re a fool. You’re an idiot.’
Walker: Precisely. It just never seemed fair to me that she got this hard shake, so I started to think, ‘How bad would a woman really have to be, in the 20th Century, to be called a shrew, and to be put down in the way that Katerina is?’ And then, I started to read a lot about Sylvia Plath and Zelda Fitzgerald, just by coincidence, because I was interested, and it all kind of came together for me. I mean, those women were tough. They could come into a room and really destroy the place, like a bull in a china shop, and that’s how I started to think about Cat.
Henley: Your blog-post also speaks about the challenging aspect of the piece.
Walker: I think people can expect to be challenged, because the character Cat, she’s not really like many other characters you get to see on-stage, in that I think it is genuinely difficult to understand her at first. So you really have to kind of go with her, and learn her, and you will come to understand her, I think. But she’ll challenge you. I think audiences can expect to be challenged, can expect to be a little uncomfortable. The play is going to work on them in ways that are challenging and tough. I’m responding to the ideas of Shrew and how we, as theatre people, and we, as a culture, think about Shrew and the place it holds in our cultural imagery.
Henley: How long have you been working on the play? Are you still revising the script?
Walker: I started writing it in the summer of 2013, and then we did a Fringe production of it in the summer of 2014, and I’ve been drafting it ever since. Altogether now about three years. I’m actually finishing a draft right now.
Currin, author of Learning Curves, 2002: You probably ought to be doing that right now instead of talking to us. [Laughter.]
Walker: That’s okay — this is actually going to be helpful. But, no, it’s not finished yet, and I think we’re going to keep working on it until the show goes up in November.
Henley: Do you intend to be a regular presence at rehearsals?
Walker: Probably not, because being a grad student is a really weird life, and time is tough, but I’m going to try to be there as much as I can. I think there’s nothing more helpful for a playwright than being in the room, and seeing people embody, and listening, so I’m going to try and be there as much as I can.
Henley: Where and what is the grad program?
Walker: University of Maryland. I love it there. I’m getting a Masters Degree in Theatre History.
Currin: Oh, I teach Theatre History at GW.
Walker: Oh, how fun!
Currin: It’s my favorite class to teach. We need to talk about that after this, because I have a unique approach. I don’t teach it chronologically. (We can geek-out later.)
Magee: I am theatre history. [Laughter.] I am the old woman at the table.
Henley: As I recall, Kate from Shrew was not a character in early drafts of Learning Curves.
Currin: That’s right — good memory! She [Emma, the protagonist] was writing her dissertation on Shrew, and trying to wrangle a feminist version of it, while herself going through an experience of falling in a very surprising kind of love with a very off-beat, unexpected person. And then we added the character of Kate. She just started talking back to Emma, basically, and it was sort of contrary to the feminist version that Emma was trying to write. Kate was the tamed shrew who was totally in love and was trying to sell Emma on this idea of love, while Emma’s trying to be the good feminist, and also experiencing what it’s like to be sandwiched between two men, one of whom she’s falling very much in love with. (He’s completely inappropriate for her.) Melissa and I were talking about this last night, because we were antiquing together.
(Henley: Melissa Flaim is the actor who played Emma, and has functioned as a sort of muse for Ally.)
Currin: Yeah, I’ve written a ton for her. And she said something really great, and I had never thought about it this way, and she’s right. She said that Shakespeare’s heroines often sit up here [gestures up high] and wait for the men to rise to them, because they don’t often have the kind of agency they need. I thought that was a really smart way of thinking about it. And Emma realizes that she is the one who has to rise up, and she has to be alone, and she has to self-actualize, even if it hurts and means cutting off these ties, these very intense romantic ties, and being on her own.
Henley: Cam, was Delia’s production the only one you’ve dramaturged or worked on?
Magee: I’ve played Kate, a bunch of times, full productions and in schools for the Folger. The full production was with Michael Tolaydo (and I did one in college), but I was very lucky with my director [Tolaydo] in that he didn’t put any politics in our Shrew. And he also let me play her as someone who had never been touched.
Walker: That’s fascinating.
Magee: So the kiss in the street, when she offers him the kiss in the street, she had no idea how to kiss. But if you quote me on anything, I want you to quote me on this, because this is what I believe after all these years with Shrew: I don’t think that Shrew needs to be redeemed. I think Shrew needs to stop being politicized. Because I don’t think it can hold it. And I think that’s why Ally’s play and Jonelle’s play are important. Because they can hold those big ideas. I don’t think Shrew can. It’s not really about that. It’s flimsy. It’s fluff.
Currin: And can I say something? I love Shrew, I do, but it’s not that good. In the canon, it’s not that good. There’s so much that doesn’t hold water in it. And in our contemporary minds, we pour so much of our perspective onto this poor little text that was not intended to do what we are trying to do to it.
Magee: It’s a play about tricks and wagers and disguise and deceit, and what do words mean in such a world. The play starts with a trick and a wager and, I think, it ends with a wager and a trick. And when she puts her hand below her husband’s foot, his instant response is, ‘Come on and kiss me, Kate.’ So he either goes down to her level or he brings her up to his. But I agree with you, I don’t think this is… [Pause.] It’s an early play.
Currin: Super early.
closes December 11, 2016
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Magee: And I think it’s just a wonderful kind of male fantasy that people pay their money to see and that is not very satisfying to do, as an actor, or an audience to see when you try to politicize it.
Currin: It is hard for an actor. I haven’t done a production, but I’ve done excerpts from it, and it’s hard to click moment to moment to moment. It’s hard to connect the dots. And I don’t know if that’s just because I’m a contemporary woman and this is just really a different… [Pause.] If she’s just a beaten-down woman, then why am I watching this story? I don’t understand that at all. I don’t know what it is, but it’s hard to play. It’s hard to play.
Magee, (clapping her hands): Unless you just play the words as they mean. Unless you just play it.
Currin: When you try to ladle on the irony, to get a political agenda across, I think it kind of crumbles.
Magee: The production that Delia did — Delia was very taken with a book called Paris Was a Woman, which was about the lesbian artistic community in Paris before the war. So we had a whole opening scene. We set it in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. And an American girl…
Currin: I remember this show!
Magee: …an American girl walks in and interrupts the girls’ poker game and they start this sort of intellectual discussion. And they come up with this wager, about whether this is the breaking of the shrew or the taming of the shrew, and all the girls play all the parts. And at the end of it, they opened the Folio up to Taming of the Shrew and put it there for the audience to decide. Now I don’t think that perhaps that was the most satisfying production of Taming of the Shrew, but it gave all those women a chance to do parts that they wouldn’t have normally gotten to do. And I think sometimes when a woman plays a male role, people hear that role differently. They really start to hear that role, because it’s in a tone and a voice that they wouldn’t normally hear it in.
Currin: And Kathleen [Akerley] just did the opposite in Fear [Longacre Lea Productions,] which I thought was really terrific, by giving Gertrude voice, in the arras scene, the Polonius murder scene. The whole scene is just so anti-feminist, and if you put a man as Gertrude, you can hear that sexism. And if it’s a woman playing it, you can’t hear it in the same way. And she proves it in the scene with Michael Glenn playing Gertrude. It was really effective. And I thought that was revelatory. And I’m a woman sitting here going, ‘What? As many years as I’ve studied that play? My gosh.’ It’s really interesting.
Magee: One of the interesting things that Shakespeare does is that there are other shrew plays.
Currin: Oh, yes.
Magee: And, of course, the goal is to get the woman to shut up. And the punishment for a shrew was always this sort of forked instrument that would go in your mouth, so that if you spoke, it would cut you. It was to get you to shut up. So in the other shrew plays, women shut up. In this, she talks and talks and talks and talks and talks at the end. I mean, I really do think it’s clever, and it’s full of tricks, it’s full of deceptions, it’s full of wordplay. And I do think that she’s got some idea of what’s going on.
Currin: I directed it with high school students in Switzerland, at this American school where I used to teach. I felt a key to making it work, in any kind of modern context, is the Petruchio. He has to be a person of such charm and charisma that the audience can smell that he’s playing a game. And she figures out the rules, and they figure them out together, and they reinvent a little bit, maybe. But he’s sort of the key to making her work, which is kind of frustrating.
Magee: Having done this for years and years in front of third and fourth and fifth-graders — just the rough and tumble scene — there is no doubt in those kids’ minds that they like each other because they punch each other. It’s kind of Punch and Judy.
Currin: It’s juvenile.
Magee: It’s juvenile. It is. Actually, the emotions in Taming of the Shrew are about a fifth/sixth-grade level. And that’s why it can’t hold the big ideas. They’re not the most emotionally sophisticated of — yes.
Henley: Back to that AU production of Shrew; did you end up happy with the result?
Walker: No! I signed on for a version of this play where we feel very differently about Kate. And this goes back to what Cam was saying: the rough and tumble scene is my favorite scene in that play. It’s delightful.
Currin: It’s fun to do.
Walker: Yeah, it’s super fun to do. The language is incredible; some of the best wordplay that Shakespeare’s ever written, I think. Where I run into trouble is when we get Kate to Petruchio’s manor, when the starving happens, and the moon and sun conversation, all of that. Those pieces are where the play starts to lose me and where I start to lose my connection to Kate.
Currin: That is so funny, because, in Learning Curves, the one scene from the original text that they replay over and over and over again, as Emma learns she’s losing control of her Kate, is the moon and sun scene.
Walker, gasping: Oh, my gosh!
Currin: Because her Kate won’t play it with that language and refuses to play along. And Petruchio is trying to keep her on script, and she keeps straying in very different ways as they revisit that scene. And that’s Emma’s first clue that, ‘Oh, no. I have no control over this.’ Because I have the same response to that frustrating scene.
Walker: There’s just something about that scene, because I think more than any other part of the play, that’s where you see her give up.
Magee: Oh, see, now, I have a — having done it — I had a completely different reaction to it. But that was probably because of my Petruchio [Conrad Feininger.]
Currin: Again we go back to how he…
Magee: Because we’d had the scene — after the Tailor/Haberdasher (who I’ve also played) — we had the scene where we were just both exhausted and we both sort of sat down and he just talked to me and said, ‘Don’t you get this? If you just play the game…
Currin: Then you can have your way.
Magee: Then you can have your way.
Currin: I hate that. I hate that so much. It turns my stomach!
Magee: I know! But it’s because it was two people talking.
Currin: No, I can see that, theatrically. No, I get that.
Walker: It’s the specificity of the moment between two people.
Magee: Yes, instead of, like, smack, smack, smack.
Currin: But that is the feminine condition throughout history. Be a good girl and play by the rules and then you get rewarded. And that’s a really frustrating…
Walker: Just smile and you can be President.
Magee: But then she takes the game and says, ‘Okay. All right. You want to call it the moon? I’ll call it the moon. Okay.’ The important thing in that scene is that she says, ‘Yes, let’s go forward.’ And so I don’t want to apologize for Kate. I just don’t think poor Kate can hold all of those issues. Which is why it’s important that they [indicating the others] write plays.
Walker: I think that is such a profound observation, and I think you’re so right. Especially because it’s always so hard when you look back at plays —Shakespeare’s plays, Greek plays, whatever. Because we’re retroactively using our intellectual matrix, right? A kind of intellectual framework of feminism that just was not present, right? Shakespeare did not have access to that idea. And I’m sure if he did…
Currin: Not right away. He gets better later.
Walker: He gets a little better.
Magee: But going back to Delia’s production, I think that one of the reasons why it wasn’t as successful as if we had just done it — this is Taming of the Shrew and women are playing it, boom — is that we set it up as an intellectual conversation. The way we set the scene was, here’s a wager: is this the breaking of the shrew or the taming of the shrew, taming like a falcon or breaking like a horse, what do you think? And I think that the play just can’t hold it.
Henley: Do you think our attitudes toward the play have changed during our lifetimes?
Currin: That’s what I was grappling with with Learning Curves, with my own romanticized, girlish view of that text: ‘They figured out that they fell in love; it’s a romantic comedy. They’re going to live happily ever after.’ And then, as an older woman, going, ‘What is that? That’s not the play at all.’ So as Emma’s sort of grappling with that, it was kind of me grappling with that, and how that plays out in real life. And my response to that is, ‘Be alone!’
Walker: What a great ending. Yeah, I do think the attitude toward the play has changed. And I think our expectations for representations of women and, really, any what-we-can-think-of-as-a-marginalized-group has changed, has become sharper, and very different, so when we watch Shrew, our eyes are looking at things they may not have twenty-five, thirty years ago. And it’s tough for me, too, because, similarly, the whole reason I like Shakespeare is, in part (and this is maybe sad to admit, but): I love the film Ten Things I Hate About You, which is a Shrew adaptation.
Currin: I love that movie.
Walker: And that got me into the play at first. And I was, similarly, ‘That is so great: two complicated and weird people find love, and that’s great.’ And then, as I kind of developed a sharper dramaturgical eye, I similarly started to notice things, like, I couldn’t un-see.
Magee: I think, as people get more mature emotionally — I think this really does work well for a fifth grade mentality.
Walker: You’re so right.
Currin: He’s writin’ for the groundlings.
Magee: It is Ten Things I Hate About You. It’s a Punch and Judy play. It really is. [Pause.] Well, we’ve solved that, Christopher. [Laughter.]
Henley: Have any of you seen a fully satisfying production of this play?
Currin: No, I haven’t.
Magee: Yeah, but when I saw them, I was younger. I mean, I saw my first — the first Shakespeare I saw, my Dad took me to The Globe Theatre in Balboa Park in San Diego, and my first one was Richard II. And then, the next day, he took me to Taming of the Shrew, and it was so sexy. It was that kind of rough and tumble that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton did.
Currin: And there’s a filmed version with Meryl Streep as Katerina, and that’s good. Because it’s Streep, so she can solve the problems, the thorny issues, that we’re talking about. That was good. And she was so — she was just so not over-the-top that, when she made her physical choices, they were not out-of-scale. It was an interesting pairing of those two, because Raul Julia was so compelling, in his own way.
Henley: Do you think it helped the dynamic that Raul Julia was Hispanic?
Currin: It culturally contextualizes something? Maybe, maybe. The thing I’ve learned from working with really great actors over the years is that sometimes they’ll mask your script problems. I can do it as an actor, too, and I have done it, because I know what the playwright means. It’s not on the page, but I can make it — I can zhyouse it over there. And that’s what I think we saw working in that production, was two great actors compensating for holes. And sometimes, when you have lesser actors — actually, for development, I think, sometimes, it’s better to have people who don’t know what you intend so that you can see the warts and all of what it is that you’ve actually written.
At this point, our discussion broadened to include other insights into the process of playwrighting, as well as a look at the D.C. scene for women theatre-makers a year after the ground-breaking Womens’ Voices Theatre Festival. Part two of this interview