Trading in Elizabethan era food, décor and sounds for Spam, art deco and 1950s pop songs, student theater group the Rude Mechanicals will perform Shakespeare’s bawdy and highly gendered “The Taming of the Shrew” this weekend with a twist: It’s staged as a 1950s sitcom.
Director and LSA senior Jennifer Chiles has conceived a distinctive vision of this well-known comedy about family, love and courtship. Mild-mannered Bianca conforms to feminine ideals, while her older sister Kate is fiercely independent and outspoken to the point that she is rude. Problem is, Bianca can’t marry until Kate does. Petruchio, a wandering playboy seeking a challenge, takes on a bet to woo and tame Kate so that his buddy can marry Bianca. The two stubborn characters fall in love but not before Petruchio calms Kate’s wild tendencies though bizarre methods. Petruchio and Kate’s unconventional love story balances compromise and passion. The updated period’s polite conventions serve as a foil to Petruchio and Kate’s brash and outrageous behavior.
Modern audiences might be critical of Shakespeare’s characterization, interpreting Kate’s tamer disposition as a sacrifice of personal freedom and submission to male domination. This controversial aspect of the play is one of the reasons Chiles chose to take it on.
The primary cause for alarm is a concluding monologue delivered by Kate in which she proclaims her commitment to Petruchio to the audience: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee and for thy maintenance.” This notorious monologue is actually removed from many productions of the piece. But Chiles chose to keep it untouched, believing that, while challenging, it’s important to the love story.
“The lines aren’t troubling because we’ve tried to establish that both Petruchio and Kate have learned something about compromise and relationships and themselves,” Chiles said.
Chiles perceived an attitude toward gender incredibly reminiscent of the 1950s, with Bianca and Kate resembling female stereotypes prevalent in the era. Bianca is the early-’50s innocent and ideal proper housewife with a cinched waistline, full skirt and pearls. Costume Director Amy Julia Cheyfitz, an RC and LSA senior, describes Bianca’s look as “much more Pleasantville” and even a “a little cartoonish.” Kate, on the other hand, is the rebellious, fashion-forward modern woman, inspired by Dior’s chic and simple silhouettes.
Of Shakespeare’s plays, “Taming of the Shrew” lends itself particularly well to flexibility in terms of time period because it takes place largely within the home as opposed to involving a kingdom or an empire. While stock images of ’50s sock hops, jukeboxes and pink poodle skirts may come to mind; this vision of the era contains none of that. Chiles vision is that of a sophisticated domestic sphere – the living room, complete with period appropriate fireplace and bar. This central space lends itself well to the sitcom feel of the play. It’s reminiscent of slapstick comedies like “I Love Lucy” where most of the action takes place within the home. The remainder of the play is streets scenes.
Rude Mechanicals offers all students passionate about theater a chance to participate in completely student-run productions. This self-motivated group has an obvious drive and abundant creative force that it has poured into this intense extra-curricular. But when it comes down to it, it’s here to put on a good show and have fun.
And while our minds can be clouded by contemporary interpretation, Chiles hasn’t forgotten Shakespeare’s original aim for “The Taming of the Shrew” – to entertain audiences with the comedy of exaggerated characters.
“Since it’s a comedy, (the actors’) level of familiarity with one another means they aren’t afraid to joke around on stage,” Chiles said.
The cast members’ bonds should come through in the comic timing of the tight-knit cast.
“Since we’ve all been working together for so long, we can’t help but have a close relationship,” Chiles said.
The Taming of the Shrew
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
At the Lydia
$3 for students/$5