The Queens Companys production of The Taming of the Shrew stars women top (Carey Urban) to bottom (Samarra).
Are Elizabethan men necessary?
By Rachel Breitman
Rebecca Patterson did not name The Queens Company after the borough.
Instead, she chose the moniker for her all-female productions of classic comedies and dramas to honor early British performance groups like the Dukes Company and the Kings Company, with a nod to a diverse group of queens who inspired her work, from Cleopatra to Queen Latifah.
Founded in 2000, the company touts itself as all female! all the time! no apologies! This month marks its tenth gender-bending production, Shakespeares The Taming of the Shrew, which is the story of the wild and free-spirited Katherina, daughter of merchant Baptista Minola, who offers a large dowry to marry off his volatile girl. Petruchio steps up to the plate, and then struggles to rid Katherina of her outspoken ways.
Patterson faced the challenge not only of casting the headstrong female lead, but finding an equally forceful actress to fill the role of Katherinas love interest and sparring partner. Even more complex was discovering a way to render the ending, in which a newly tamed Kate submits to her husbands commands. So, taking advantage of the Bards lack of explicit stage directions, the Queens Company turned Kates submissive soliloquy into a wrestling match.
The end seems so odd, a woman of Kates spirit would never kneel down the way we see her do it, said Patterson, who has a Master of Fine Arts in directing from UCLA. In our version, Kate manhandles him during this scene. She acts out her subservience in a very un-subservient way.
Many consider the play misogynistic, a label Patterson dismisses. Petruchio suffers as much as Kate in his efforts to tame her, and in this way, the play reflects the natural struggles of the male-female relationship. (The comedy is known, after all, as Shakespeares battle of the sexes.)
While Patterson did not fully rewrite the script, some of the scenes from the original play have been cutincluding the preface about the drunken beggar Christopher Sly, Petruchios wild wedding day antics and some of the suitors wooing scenes. Oh, and Bianca, Katherinas meek and beautiful younger sister, had to be recast
as a blow up doll.
We lifted her speeches out, so she is relatively silent, said Patterson. She is a mirror. You have to hold her. She cant stand on her own two feet. But the actors all found her to be a good acting partner, since she attentively listens.
The rest of the cast includes a mix of regulars and actresses new to the companys productions. The performances, which include rapid-fire Elizabethan dialogue combined with nonstop tussling, give classically trained actresses with a background in stage combat the chance to spar, both verbally and physically. Since Shakespeares plays feature few female roles, a classically cast Taming of the Shrew would have offered only three female characterstwo of whom barely speak.
Patterson updates these timeless texts with contemporary music and lip-synching. A 2002 production of Antony and Cleopatra included music made famous by Bollywoods romantic comedies. For Taming of the Shrew, Patterson emphasizes the storys battle of the sexes theme with girl-power serenades by Tina Turner (I Dont Wanna Fight), Cindy Lauper (Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), and Pat Benatar (Hit Me With Your Best Shot).
The plays costumes, which combine disparate eras of dress, also help modernize the story. Male characters wear early 17th century long coats, while the women are corseted with a strong silhouette from a hundred years later. But one of the most crucial elements of costume is the facial hair carefully applied on the faces of the male leads.
We design the hair based on the character, explained Patterson. First we sketch it out with an eyebrow pencil. Then you put on spirit gum, and attach hair extensions that have been chopped up really fine. It takes from ten to twenty minutes, even more if you have the Full Monty, which includes side burns, a mustache, and a fairly heavy beard.
Beyond facial hair, much of the performers gender roles are signified by gesture and stance. Patterson leads a gender workshop at the beginning of each production.
Its fairly easy to become a man, said the director. Gender is performed. Playing a man, actresses learn a wider stance to take up space, and walk into a room as though you own it. Women playing female characters have to make themselves smaller. Karen Berthel, who plays Gremio, Vincentio, and one of the servants, learned to shift her weight to fill the stage as a man.
As a man you take up more space in general, said Berthel. Elbows are out, but you relax the top of your shoulders, take it to an extreme, like a football player whose lateral muscles are in the way. And theres the pelvis placement; women tend to pull back their pelvis for a feminine stance. Switching the gender, I just put the pelvis out, as if leading with the penis.
The unique interpretation of theater coupled with creative casting led Barnard College professor Pamela Cobrin to bring her Women in Theater students to see a previous production by the Queens Company of Robert Brinsley Sheridans School for Scandal, and she intends to bring this semesters class in Black Theater to see Taming of the Shrew, because of its racially diverse leads.
The reason I like these productions is because it shows that theater is not static, said Cobrin, who has previously hosted Patterson as a guest lecturer in her class. It is always political in nature. There is a quote from W.E.B. DuBois, All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of purists. His point is theater is teaching people something. So, theatergoers who have always cheered Katherina as she bandied words and broke musical instruments over mens heads can take heart. The Queens Companys Shrew remains untamed.