Io era tra color che son sospesi,
e donna mi chiamò beata e bella,
tal che di comandare io la richiesi.
I was among those, in Limbo, in suspense,
and a lady called to me, she so beautiful, so blessed,
that I begged her to command me.
—Dante, Inferno II, 52-54.
GO see The Porters of Hellsgate do The Taming of the Shrew. It's a terrific production, and an odd one, in lots of ways. For instance, costumes are always important, but it's rare for the Costume Designer to be quite so pivotal as Jessica Pasternak is here. The genders are reversed in the casting, but everyone is in male clothing. This is brilliant. It takes the focus away from femme drag (which the Porters recently did brilliantly, in the person of Thomas Bigley as the cruel Queen in Cymbeline), which has so much to do with spectacle, and instead concentrates our attention on the power dynamics Shakespeare is actually talking about.
Lauren Jean Lee is a slick, amoral, yet heartfelt Petruchio, and you can't take your eyes off of her. Directors Rose Fliegel and Alicia Patterson have paired Lee with the intensely defensive Kate of Sean Faye, and the result is electric. I've only seen the Taming live twice before; once in Santa Cruz, and once at the Odyssey theater with Jack Stehlin in the role. Both were excellent productions; Stehlin, of course, is in a class by himself. Lauren Jean Lee is a young actor, stepping into a challenging role, supported by a strong, spirited cast with no weak links and a wagon-load of timely ethical passions about domination and consent and gender. Lee’s Petruchio is tall, and his beauty is dark; from where I sat, the eyes seemed black and deep, like, watch-out-for-hypnosis eyes. Her Petruchio’s steely intelligence slithers around Katherine in silky coils.
Sean Faye’s extraordinary work in the role of Katherine is the other pillar of the production. First off, his Kate is very physical---as is typical enough (among theater history’s “household Kates"), except that there's usually plenty of flailing around, with feline psychomotor hysteria, antics and so on. Some of that is necessary, but Faye innovates in keeping it down to that minimum, and instead letting the rest of the physicality flow into his demeanor, posture, nonverbal unconscious social cuing, and intense presence on the stage. Why is this so moving to watch?
Well, I’m not sure, but I think it’s along these lines. Faye is a masculine guy, with an adult male Ashkenasi Jewish nose, 5 o’clock shadow, and a pair of shoulders on him. Not an obviously tough guy (see what I did there?), but I would not mess with him in an alley. In the first half of the show, Faye is emotionally activated as hell; he is Katherine getting bounced around and insulted by each and every one of her attachment figures (until Petruchio comes along—a whole new ordeal). I seemed to feel much of the testosterone I was looking at, as the male biochemistry of the actor colored the presence of the character in her predicament. Female gendered clothing would perhaps have obscured this, and I felt pleased for Faye that he did not have to contend with any.
Kate is abused, Kate is brainwashed, she's programmed, her boundaries commandeered by a cynical opportunist who is himself motivated half by financial greed, and half by a post-traumatic form of love that mid-20th century psychoanalysts called sadomasochism, a “perversion.” Petruchio’s transformation of Kate is a traumatic one, involving sleep deprivation, withholding of food, using hunger as a conditioning tool for behavior modification; utterly egregious gaslighting; and the programmer’s theft of the victim’s control over the precise form of her own name. Yet if the production is a good one, Petruchio loves Kate, and Kate loves Petruchio. The Porters of Hellsgate have achieved this, and it’s hot a.f. to watch.
The audience is pulled into the question. Appalled as we may be by his methods, their effect upon his target seems incredibly therapeutic. Before Petruchio, Katherine's misery is just as huge as her aggression. He takes away her power as the price for taking away her misery as well; when she realizes that submission somehow lightens her burden and feels paradoxically liberating, she seems to flip an internal switch and drop into subspace. Tellingly, Shakespeare sends no abusive language from Petruchio to his lady; insults would only block her access to the submission that he wants for her, and that she comes to need / turns out to need.
Power gets asserted in various ways, all of them familiarly Shakespearean. When Petruchio shows up late to his own wedding, dressed as a kind of clown, I think of Henry V wooing his Katherine, telling her “We are the makers of manners, Kate…” Evan Isaac Lipkin is a delightful Bianca, a pretty, petulant Ken-doll swish. While this might be too much in doses any larger than these, it works. The war between her and her older sister reminds me of the moment in Much Ado about Nothing when Hero says of her older sister Beatrice, “Why, she would mock me into air!”
Jono Eiland plays an acoustic guitar and does some singing; he does both well. As in his previous work with the Porters, Eiland somehow lends stability to the whole stage when he stands on it. There’s a gravitas there, but he’s funny, too; it’s the… stability. He reads as stable. I think it’s his combination of calm and large. Michael Bigley shines as a gifted comic in the roles of Biondello and the Widow. The jokes keep on coming, like you’re being pummeled on the ropes. Bigley is f*cking hilarious in this thing. Kate Faye, brings some big laughs, artfully playing a hapless douche who strives in vain to rope a heifer. Her timing and flustered dignity are disarmingly endearing—and that’s where the comedy waves get through, blasting my own stuck-up dignity with a beam of pure satire till I suddenly realize my laughing is making too much noise.
The role of Tranio is played by Lauren Zbylski, to the Lucentio of Julie Lanctot. It’s a fun rapport to watch, as master and man interact on new terrain (Padua), in the new project of getting Lucentio a wife. Like Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, they swap identities and clothing, turning 180° the rusty wheel of social class. Turn the gender wheel the same way and you have the dramaturgy of this excellent production.
The program’s “Note from the Directors” ends with this quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” You’re in good hands, here.