14 February 1998: Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. “Adapted and Directed” by Andrei Serban

“Adapted”is a short word that covers a multitude of … sins, in this case. Serban’s take on Shrew seems to be that Shakespeare intended to give an air of unreality to the dramatic action by framing it as a drunken dream of Christopher Sly’s. He took a modern metaphor, carnival and sideshow, to articulate the idea, and added a sort of crazy vaudeville for good measure. The result in this case is a production whose directorial hand is so heavy, intrusive, and insistent that it nearly completely obscures Shakespeare’s play. Serban might agree, and might argue that it needs something like this because it is not a viable play by itself and needs “adaptation” to the present day.

I haven’t read the play in some years, but my impression is that Serban has cut the text heavily. In these circumstances Shakespeare’s lines seem to be almost an embarrassment, and Serban wants as few of them as he can have without decimating the action. It is almost a case of Shrew rewritten for the post-modern stage by a drunken Dario Fo. Serban’s adaptation is brilliant in its own way, partly because it is so thorough, and so various in its inventiveness. But it is also perverse. It uses the material of the play as raw material distorted deliberately in the service of making a statement about post-modern life — namely, that it is full of illusion and delusion, and in certain ways unreal and lacking in verifiable meaning. The lack of verifiability is perhaps my over-reaction to a production that I really hated. But Serban is neither Pirandello nor Beckett; he lacks the deep, profound acquaintance of both of those masters with basic things about human existence.

Didi’s instruction to the boy in Act II of Godot — “Tell him … Tell him we were here” — locates Beckett’s play about the impossibility of verifying meaning in an absurd and unknowable universe — grounds the play permanently in actual experience. Beckett invokes the presence of the actor (the phrase is Joseph Chaikin’s) as a convincing, nearly palpable metaphor for life. What if you gave a play and nobody came? We were there too; the unwritten contract performed by actors and audience together is what gives life to a script. Beckett saw that and used the perception as a metaphor that finally and utterly convinces by reason of its probity. Serban sees no such contract in the offing. He doesn’t take his audience into his confidence, but leaves them on the outside looking in; the idea is not to enlighten the audience but only to dazzle them. In Serban’s hands, all the slapstick behavior, the pratfalls, the hijinks, performed though they were by talented and very well rehearsed actors, failed to amuse. This farcical treatment of a broadly comic play of Shakespeare’s was simply very unfunny. People just didn’t laugh very much.

There was some very good, energetic acting, as I say, controlled to the nth degree by a very strong, indeed unrelenting, directorial hand. Kristin Flanders, the Kate, was not to my liking at all. We saw her last season as Anne Whitefield in Shaw’s Man and Superman and didn’t like her in that either. She has no warmth, no charm, no sex appeal. She is cold, cold. Maybe that’s just what Serban wanted.

Her final speech, beginning something like “I do not know why women are so simple,” was given great prominence and slowed down a lot. In fact, one could almost hear the play screeching to a halt to let Kate actually speak some lines written by Shakespeare. She spoke them carefully, slowly, in a kind of abjectly humiliated way, and ended up on her knees, her left arm and hand extended out, palm up, on the floor for Petruchio to tread upon. We waited. Instead of treading upon it, Petruchio himself went down on his knees and did the same palm-up routine. This, my companion and I thought, was Serban’s sop to those who tend to deplore the arguable misogyny of the main action, but it didn’t work. Serban of course cannot not let us know that he knows the play is susceptible of accusations of misogyny; but it’s too late, much too late, in the action to take out an ad in the program, as it were, to tell us so at the eleventh hour (it was in fact close to 11:00 p.m. by that time) after nearly three hours of hamming it up for laughs (that weren’t there). If Serban intended some kind of “get the guests” action against the audience, a kind of pseudo-Ibsenesque sharpshooter technique (as Shaw memorably described it in The Quintessence of Ibsenism) whereby you will allow an audience scope to think ungenerous thoughts and then convict them of it in the next act, it didn’t come off. If we were supposed to be having lots of fun watching Petruchio make a victim of Kate, and then get our comeuppance in the “women are so simple” sequence, it didn’t happen. It took a long time for Serban’s take on the play to articulate itself — I’m not sure it ever really did so completely — and by that time the play was over, or nearly so.

Serban’s way of articulating the closing frame of the Christopher Sly dream was to have all the cast quick-change to street clothes and exit across the stage, pairing off as gay and lesbian, some of them, in the process. There is of course nothing of this in Shakespeare’s text. No matter. It’s all just a play, and that message was sent loud and clear to Christopher Fry, who accepted it in a drunken stupor, as before. By that time, I too felt that none of this mattered much anyway too.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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