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Girl Meets Boy, Girl Tames Boy

Rude Guerrilla produces a gender-bending "Taming of the Shrew" that puts a different spin on sexism.

August 01, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Kiss me, Kate" is the line most people remember from "The Taming of the Shrew."

But its meaning has been a matter of controversy since the women's movement toppled the notion that wives should be the tamed, domesticated helpmates of their husbands.

Some think Shakespeare's play is purely sexist, a conventional product of its time. According to that reading, the tamer, Petruchio, says the line to claim his victory over Kate, who began the play as a fiery, defiant, apparently unmarriageable woman but has now been suitably squelched to fit the submissive wifely role society demands of her.

Others--including Shakespeare Orange County's recent production of "Shrew"--find something much more subversive and complex in Kate's final speech, which on the surface seems like an abject capitulation to the view of husband as lord and master.

In SOC's version, "Kiss me, Kate" was an astounded and delighted Petruchio's recognition that his wife has mastered the social gamesmanship he practices to the consternation of more conventional folk. Her final speech, delivered in a kind of code, was a plea for him to recognize that mastery, while allowing everybody else on stage to believe she is accepting a subservient role. "Kiss me, Kate" and the passionate embrace that followed, sealed a partnership of equals.

If all this doesn't sound complicated enough, here comes the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company to add curves in unexpected places.

In this version of "Shrew," now running at the company's Empire Theater in Santa Ana, Susan E. Taylor will speak the famous line as Petruchio, and Jay Fraley will be the object of her ardor as Kate.

No cross-dressing is involved, but the sexes have been reversed so that it's an aggressive, flamboyant woman, who happens to be named Petruchio, pursuing and pacifying a wild, social-misfit male who happens to be named Kate. As a further wrinkle, the play is set during the late 1950s and early '60s, with snippets from period pop songs such as the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" and Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" used as between-scenes commentaries.

It's the 3-year-old company's first Shakespeare play. Artistic director Dave Barton wanted to give it an edge and a provocative twist, as is Rude Guerrilla's wont.

Barton, who has not directed Shakespeare before, says he picked "The Taming of the Shrew" under the assumption that it probably was sexist as commonly perceived, and that reversing the characters' sexes would offer an interesting test of whether sexism works both ways: Is what's bad for the goose, so to speak, also bad for the gander?

But he found that his assumption, born of vague recollections from having seen a production of "Shrew" on PBS years ago, was incorrect.

"People who don't really know the play assume it's sexist because that's what they've heard. After working on it six weeks, I don't think it really is," Barton said as he, co-director David Gallo and lead actors Taylor and Fraley gathered for an interview at a cafe near the theater.

As the actors and directors wrestled with the material in rehearsal, they say, their "Shrew" became less about sexism than an examination of the play's eroticism--with the characters' sex reversals affording a chance to upset commonly held notions about male and female roles in the seduction process.

"Women don't often have the chance to be aggressive sexual characters in the theater unless they're prostitutes," Barton said.

Taylor showed she has no problem playing a forceful woman doing whatever it takes to claim her man in Alternative Repertory Theatre's recent production of John Patrick Shanley's light sex comedy, "Psychopathia Sexualis." She said she is playing Petruchio as a woman smitten with lust at first sight of Fraley's bouffanted, James Dean-ish Kate.

"I feel this is one of Shakespeare's most erotic plays, but nobody ever embraces that," Taylor said. "These people are attracted to each other. It's sex, that's what it is," that drives their sparring. "The challenge was to sexually pursue Kate aggressively without emasculating him. At the end of the play, Kate and Petruchio are the happiest people on stage because there's been a meeting of the minds, the souls and the nasty bits."

Fraley's past two Rude Guerrilla leading roles have dealt him agonizing deaths as a crucified homosexual Jesus in Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi" and as Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott in a gripping production of Ted Tally's "Terra Nova."

As Kate, he gets a kiss of love instead of the kiss of death; his challenge now, he says, is to turn her/his submissive-seeming final speech into an admonition for men to show a softer side to women.

"If you think in the end I'm talking to women, it's completely inappropriate," he said. "The only way it flies is if you think I'm talking to men about the way we should behave."

Barton and Gallo went to SOC's "Shrew" together and came away with diametrically opposed interpretations of what the production was communicating in Kate's final speech--which shows what a tricky play this is.

Fraley thinks the further, potentially confusing complication of gender reversal is worth the risk.

"If we fail, we fail gracefully and big, and it was so exciting that we even took the chance."

*

"The Taming of the Shrew," presented by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. $10 to $12. Through Aug. 20. (714) 547-4588.

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