John Fletcher

Cole and comedy: the genius of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’

Clackamas Rep's revival puts the song and dance into Oregon's shrewish summer

A really good musical comedy is a contradiction in time. It pushes things ahead, always keeping its eye on the story, surging like a locomotive toward its narrative destination. And it stops things dead in their tracks, creating scenes so mesmerizing that the audience happily loses sight of why the scene exists: all that matters is the sheer sensation of the moment.

Norby, Clark,  Sharinghousen, Morgan-Rothschild: four's a crowd. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Norby, Clark, Sharinghousen, Morgan-Rothschild: four’s a crowd. Photo: Travis Nodurft

So when the second act of the 1948 Cole Porter comedy “Kiss Me, Kate” begins with the long backstage sizzle of “Too Darn Hot,” a swelteringly energetic mating dance to the impossibility of mating on a hot and humid day, not a lot of people are wondering where the play is going with this. In fact, “Too Darn Hot” doesn’t have much of anything at all to do with the plot of “Kate,” which is taken loosely from “The Taming of the Shrew.”

But it has a great deal to do with the FEEL of the play. It’s a teasing, lusty evocation of the erotic undercurrent that sparks the characters and energizes their love-battles. The playfully raunchy “Tom, Dick, or Harry” in Act One does the same thing: It puts the flesh on the bones of the tale. And the first act’s Viennese-style waltz “Wunderbar,” which lands prettily just this side of schmaltz, is more than an excuse to toss in a memorable tune that people might go home whistling. It lays the emotional evidence for the genuine affection that still exists between Fred and Lilli, the battling troupers, once married, now divorced, who’ve reunited to play Petruchio and Kate in a Baltimore production of “Shrew.” As the musical flip-flops wittily between Shakespearean scenes and a cavalcade of backstage dramas, it’s as if Fred and Lilli are seeing Kate and Petruchio – and themselves – in a funhouse mirror.

We don’t get a lot of chances to see “Kiss Me, Kate,” and more’s the pity, because it’s a genuine American classic. So a rousing round of applause to Clackamas Repertory Theatre, which has just opened a generally charming production of the show that richly rewards the modest drive it takes to get there. It’s not a perfect production. The relatively cramped stage puts the squeeze on dance numbers, which are integral to the show, and the ensemble acting can be uneven. But it’s generally sharp musically (conductor and music director Jon Quesenberry gets an astonishingly full and crisp sound from a 10-piece orchestra), the designs (Sunday-comics set and lighting by Chris Whitten, Betty Boopish costumes by Alva Bradford) are good, and the two leads – Portland favorite Leif Norby and city newcomer Merideth Kaye Clark, who comes to town with a string of sparkling national credits – provide enough singing and acting oomph to elevate the whole thing. Norby can bark when he needs to, but his considerable swagger in “Kate” is more feline, taut and sleek, a bit like Porter himself. Clark conveys an almost scary comic snarl: she seems almost homicidally earnest as she slams the furniture and growls that “I Hate Men.” Yet it’s a restrained rage, a calculated tantrum that she sometimes confirms to the audience with a flash of satisfied delight: she knows how to hold herself back for dramatic effect. And musically, both give full range to one of the musical theater’s finest scores, which pulses exultantly from the pure romance of “So in Love” to the sly flutter of “Always True to You in My Fashion” and the jazzy riffs of “From This Moment On,” which was lifted from Porter’s 1951 show “Out of This World” for a 1999 Broadway revival, and left in for this production.

Portland theater’s become known in the past few years as a fertile experimental lab for new work, but it’s also seen a heartening revival of interest in musical theater. Downtown, Portland Center Stage has made a fruitful commitment to producing new and classic musical works. But a lot of the action’s been in the suburbs, in places like Tigard’s Broadway Rose, Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theatre, and Clackamas Rep, which performs on the outskirts of Oregon City at Clackamas Community College. Musicals have been mainstays for these companies, which along with Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Theatre have extended Portland’s theater reach admirably beyond the city’s core. In a way it makes sense that musicals are blooming in the ’burbs, where audiences tend to be more traditional (I won’t say “conservative”: the word’s meaning has been destroyed by its political context) and appreciative of historically proven material. Shows like “Kiss Me, Kate” are theatrical touchstones, and no matter how forward-looking we think we are, we need to touch them now and again.

Backstage, things are sizzlin' hot. Photo: Clackamas Rep

Backstage, things are sizzlin’ hot. Photo: Clackamas Rep

My son the music scholar likes to think of “Kiss Me, Kate” as an operetta, and specifically as an American operetta, a musical play that takes the format of a European style and applies it to American culture and American sounds, loosening and freshening the genre in the process. He has a point. Porter was reportedly enthralled with “The Song of Norway,” which was based on music by Grieg, when he was working on “Kate” (the “Norway” team later produced 1955’s “Kismet,” based on music by Borodin) and Porter seemed determined to write a more genuinely integrated work of music theater than so many of his earlier hits that had had loose books designed mainly to provide a setting for the songs. As a result, “Kate” holds up beautifully, even given the sea change in sexual politics in the 60-plus years since its debut.

The Shakespeare connection is also important, providing a solid structural base that the writers Sam and Bella Spewack vamped on wittily in their variation on the theme. (The characters of Fred and Lilli were inspired by the sometimes epically bickering theater couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who also provided the inspiration for Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Ten Chimneys,” the play that new artistic director Damaso Rodriguez chose this spring as his first to direct for Artists Rep. Yet another  funhouse mirror: let’s not forget that “Kate” is also very much a play about the alternating artificiality and genuineness of the theater.) One of the terrific things about the Spewacks’ book is that it simply assumes the audience knows “Shrew,” dropping in pertinent scenes without bothering to lay laborious explanatory groundwork. And because the script makes sure that Fred and Lilli are equally matched, a fit pair both in their strengths and weaknesses, the issues of gender dominance that sometimes haunt “Shrew” simply don’t matter. Ditto for the low-comedy couple Lois and Bill: they’re equally tainted.

Any number of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted with music (Arne Zaslove did a slew of them, ranging from “Twelfth Night” to “Macbeth,” years ago for Seattle’s old Bathhouse Theatre) but surprisingly few have had the full Broadway treatment. That short list includes the wonderful and almost never seen “The Boys from Syracuse,” adapted in 1938 from “The Comedy of Errors”; “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948); and “West Side Story,” the transplanted and updated “Romeo and Juliet,” from 1957 – once a decade during the Broadway musical’s golden years. I’m tempted to add 1950’s “Guys and Dolls” to the list, even though it’s based on Damon Runyon’s tales, because its structure is classically Shakespearean: high comedy and low comedy, high romance and low romance, something for the gentry, something for the groundlings, and hitting that sweet spot in between.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is one of those musicals that makes you long for the full-out, no-expenses-spared Broadway approach, and Clackamas Rep has neither the space nor the money to do that. Accomodations have been made. But director David Smith-English and choreographer Wes Hanson, along with musical director Quesenberry, have cast well and gone straight to the heart of the thing, making smart choices all along the way. Clark and Norby are the guts and glory of this “Kate,” but they have plenty of good support, including (among others) Alex Nathan as the insinuating lead singer/dancer in “Too Darned Hot”; a purring Amelia Morgan-Rothschild as Bianca/Lois Lane, the object of Kate’s contention; veteran James Lawrence as the sisters’ exasperated father Baptista; James Sharinghausen as Bill, the hoofer whose gambling habit kicks off the evening’ crisis; and Ernie Casciato as the scene-stealing general who bursts in like a one-man cavalry to take Lilli away from all this. Doren Elias and Michael Mitchell have terrific fun as the genial mob enforcers who deliver the showstopping “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and who, come to think of it, connect “Kiss Me, Kate” to “Guys and Dolls.” I rest my case.

Morgan-Rothschild salutes Casciato (right). Photo: Clackamas Rep

Morgan-Rothschild salutes Casciato (right). Photo: Clackamas Rep

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 Before seeing “Kate” on Saturday night, I went to Artists Rep in the afternoon to catch the next-to-last performance of Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading of John Fletcher’s 17th century comedy “The Tamer Tamed.” It was a fine addition to Oregon’s shrewish summer, which has also included “Kate,” Portland Shakespeare’s bracingly good (and just ended) “Shrew,” and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s current “Shrew,” which continues in Ashland through Nov. 3.

The opportunity to see so many variations on a classic theme in a short period of time is really quite splendid. Fletcher wrote “The Tamer Tamed” very much in response to Shakespeare’s “Shrew.” In it, Kate has died, and Petruchio remarries a supposedly mild-mannered young beauty, Maria, who promptly turns the tables on him and doesn’t relent until he hollers uncle. Intriguingly, Bianca, the spoiled, man-loving sister of “Shrew,” becomes a feminist instigator and conspirator in Fletcher’s play, injecting a vial of “Lysistrata” activism into the plot.

“The Tamer Tamed” is witty and crowd-pleasing and a lesser thing than “The Taming of the Shrew” – a clever riposte with less depth or originality than the original. It makes me think of a Hollywood sequel: Hey, people liked Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold together. Let’s do it again, different but the same. Shakespeare’s version has Kate and Petruchio truly wrestling with the meaning and implications of equality. Fletcher’s just says, OK, let’s let the other side win this time.

But “lesser than” doesn’t mean “not good.” Fletcher’s play is genuinely interesting, and a full production might even reveal depths I’m not seeing at first glance. It’d be a kick to see full productions of the two shows in rotating rep. Director Michael Nehring’s production is vigorous and active, and surprisingly well fleshed out for a reading. The cast (led by Kayla Lian as Maria, Peter Platt as Petruchio, Ashley Nicole Williams as Bianca and Britt Harris as the “new” Bianca, Livia) is sharp and self-assured. This was a project well worth doing. Next time, maybe, the whole Megillah, with sets and costumes and rehearsal time and all the rest.

NOTE:

“Kiss Me, Kate” continues through August 25 at Clackamas Repertory Theatre, with performances in the Osterman studio theater of the Neimeyer Center on the campus of Clackamas Community College. Ticket information is here.

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Summer of Shrew, Part 4: Which end’s up?

17th century audiences loved John Fletcher's ribald retort "The Tamer Tamed." Now, it's coming back.

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

Why have we forgotten about a sequel to “The Taming of the Shrew” that turns its gender roles upside down?

In the previous two installments of this series, which ends today, I’ve tried to show how looking closely at Shakespeare’s scripts in their cultural context can make “Shrew”’s depiction of taming much more ambiguous. The assumption seems to persist that a Kate who isn’t fully tamed departs from the spirit of Shakespeare’s play. In an otherwise laudatory review, for example, Dennis Sparks objects to the Portland Shakespeare’s Project’s mocking treatment of Kate’s final speech, claiming that she needs to express a “subservient tone” because “unfortunately those were the times in which the Bard was writing.” Yet as we’ve seen, a winking performance of obedience might actually come closer to rendering the many ironic layers that texture “Shrew.”

The times in which the Bard was writing also turn out to include room for debate. Recent scholarship has emphasized the range of views about gender roles that circulated in the Renaissance. For every pamphlet that denounced outspoken women, another responded in women’s defense. Alongside the ballads I mentioned in Part 2 that depict shrew-taming in violent terms, rival folklore collections chronicled wives who taught their husbands a lesson. Playwrights participated in this dialogue as well: the early seventeenth century saw a host of plays that questioned the status of women, including Ben Jonson’s “Epicoene, or The Silent Woman,” Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s “The Roaring Girl,” and Nathan Field’s “Amends for Ladies.”

Among these plays, one took “The Taming of the Shrew” squarely in its sights. John Fletcher’s “The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed,” probably written between 1609 and 1611, is the only sequel to a Shakespeare play not by Shakespeare that was performed during his lifetime. It offers some of the best evidence that even Renaissance audiences didn’t always buy Petruchio’s taming strategy. “Tamed” puts women on top of the men who would tame them. It’s outrageously funny. It’s being performed in rotation with Shrew at the Portland Shakespeare Project this month. And hardly anyone has heard of it.

Here’s the main plot: After Petruchio’s first wife passes away, he plans to marry a new wife, Maria, whom everyone pities because she’s going to get the harsh treatment from the taming master. But once Maria has a chat with her cousin Bianca, she decides that she’s going to stand up for women’s equality by taming her husband instead. After the wedding, Petruchio bets the other guys that he’ll have the best sex that night. (It’s a really raunchy play). But he loses when Maria and Bianca emerge up on the balcony, having borrowed a tip from Lysistrata and barricaded themselves inside Maria’s father’s house to prevent Petruchio from consummating the marriage. A siege begins: the men try to force the women out by cutting off their supplies, but wives from all over the country flock to Maria’s taming school, and the women have a big party, singing that they’ll wear the breeches from now on.

The Country Wife (Holly Johnson) and the City Wife (Jane Vogel) rally to flank Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (David Bodin) is nudged aside in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

The Country Wife (Holly Johnson) and the City Wife (Jane Vogel) rally to flank Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (David Bodin) is nudged aside in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

Petruchio has to agree to their terms: liberty and better clothes. He thinks the battle is over, but Maria hasn’t finished. She rejects her new clothes and refuses to obey Petruchio, proclaiming that men and women are equal. As a countermove, Petruchio pretends to be sick, so Maria locks him in the house and runs away with their possessions, telling everyone to keep away because he has the plague. He breaks free and threatens to go abroad; Maria says it’ll do him good. Out of desperation, he pretends to be dead, and Maria gives a eulogy lamenting the waste of a life he led. He gives up his pretense; Maria declares that she has tamed him and asks him to kiss her; and Petruchio celebrates being “born again.”

Fletcher’s written a point-by-point refutation of “Taming of the Shrew.” Instead of Petruchio the tamer, he gives us Petruchio the tamed. Instead of isolated wives, he creates a community of vibrant women. Instead of sweet Bianca, he salutes Colonel Bianca, the rebels’ commander-in-chief. Even on the level of language, Fletcher reverses Shakespeare. As I discussed in Part 2, Petruchio uses a hawk-taming analogy to explain his strategy for quieting Kate: he would “man [his] haggard,” his wild hawk, by keeping her hungry and awake until she obeyed him. Bianca turns this metaphor upside down: she celebrates “the free haggard”–the unmanned hawk–“which is that woman that has wing, and knows it,” who will “show her freedom” and “command / What she desires.” Rather than learn to please their husbands, these women let their own desires drive their action.

What’s most subversive in “The Tamer Tamed” is the suggestion that Petruchio never really tamed Kate, after all. Maria says she fears “Neither Petruchio Furius, nor his fame,” with the suggestion that his fame rests on a false rap. One of his friends admits that “the bare remembrance of his first wife / Will make him start in’s sleep, and very often / Cry out for cudgels, cowl-staves, anything, / Hiding his breeches out of fear her ghost / Should walk and wear ’em yet.” This sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder; Petruchio’s still reliving his battles with Kate because they were never over. Despite her final speech in “Shrew,” Fletcher suggests, Kate was still trying to wear the breeches. I think that’s our clearest evidence that even a seventeenth-century audience thought that the ending of “Shrew” was open to more than one interpretation.

Petruchio (Peter Platt) starts to grasp Maria’s strategy as the Country Wife (Holly Johnson) keeps watch in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

Petruchio (Peter Platt) starts to grasp Maria’s strategy as the Country Wife (Holly Johnson) keeps watch in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

Seventeenth-century audiences adored “The Tamer Tamed.” When it was performed back-to-back with “Shrew” for King Charles I in 1633, the Master of the Revels recorded that “Shrew” was “Likt” but “Tamer” was “Very well likt.” There is, of course, the possibility that “Tamer Tamed” was very well liked because the audience thought it was a spoof; that is, instead of arguing subversively for female power, the play was just caricaturing disobedient women through rowdy misogynist stereotypes, and was actually quite conservative. That is a possibility, but I don’t think it’s likely, for two reasons. The first is that “The Tamer Tamed” was censored for that 1633 court performance, and when something’s censored, it’s usually because it challenges the official order. The Master of the Revels said that “Tamer Tamed” contained “foul and offensive matters” and that he had to purge it “of oaths, profaneness, and ribaldry” so that there wouldn’t be any “offensive things against church and state.” We don’t know exactly what those offensive things were, but the censorship certainly suggests that Fletcher was perceived to be going against the norm. The second reason is that an epilogue was added to “The Tamer Tamed” for its court performance reassuring the audience that the play didn’t advocate female supremacy, and you don’t need an epilogue saying that you’re not advocating female supremacy unless you’re worried that someone would see your play and think that you were advocating female supremacy. There are limits to Fletcher’s critique: the women still work within the institution of marriage (except perhaps Bianca; it’s not clear in the text whether she has a husband), and once Petruchio capitulates, Maria announces, “I have tamed ye, / And now am vowed your servant.” But Maria commands the play with wit and savvy, masterminding each plot twist and flummoxing the men with her good-humored resistance.

A “new love” for Petruchio (Platt) and Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (Bodin) and the Country Wife (Johnson) applaud. Photo: Kate McMullan

A “new love” for Petruchio (Platt) and Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (Bodin) and the Country Wife (Johnson) applaud. Photo: Kate McMullan

Even the spectacle of women reveling in bawdy humor, not just suffering as the butt of men’s jokes, could be enough to qualify Fletcher’s play as radical in the twenty-first century. (I’ve been trying to make the case for “Tamer” as the “Bridesmaids” of the Renaissance.) Working on a speedy rehearsal schedule with the Portland Shakespeare Project acting company, my Linfield student Kyra Rickards and I developed three rules for glossing unfamiliar words in the script:

1) If it’s a food object, it’s either an aphrodisiac or a purgative.

2) If it’s a non-food object, it’s a euphemism for male or female genitals.

3) If it’s a reference to riding horseback, it’s not about riding horseback.

This embrace of bodily pleasure and social inversion–what literary scholars call the “carnivalesque” mode–makes Fletcher tremendously entertaining, but may also have contributed to his obscurity today.

Fletcher was arguably more popular than Shakespeare in the seventeenth century, and Restoration critics like John Dryden suggested he might have been a better playwright as well. (Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as the playwright for The King’s Men and collaborated with Shakespeare on several plays: “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” the lost play “Cardenio,” and perhaps “Henry VIII.”) The success of “Tamer” seemed to have spurred revivals of “Shrew,” rather than the other way around. At the end of John Lacy’s 1667 “Shrew” adaptation, for example, the male hero concedes: “I’ve Tam’d the Shrew, but will not be asham’d, / If next you see the very Tamer Tam’d.” “Tamer” was revived throughout the eighteenth century, but when the cult of Shakespeare began to flourish around his bicentennial celebrations in the 1760s, Fletcher started to lose ground. The scholar Gary Taylor has proposed that “the logic of bardolatry typically deifies one writer by demonizing others”; in the case of Shakespeare-worship, the victim was Fletcher. His plays (and his collaborations with Francis Beaumont) were called “gross and indecent” even by their own editors, and “Tamer” seems not to have been performed again until the feminist movement revived it in the late 1970s.

Recently, “Tamer” has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. The Royal Shakespeare Company paired “Shrew” and “Tamer” to great acclaim in 2009, and closer to home, Bag & Baggage Productions tried a double-bill in 2010 with a slimmed-down “Shrew” as the first act and a truncated “Tamer” after intermission. When I’ve taught the plays together in a Linfield seminar on Shakespeare and his rivals, students tend to replicate the 1633 court verdict: “Shrew” is liked, but “Tamer” is very well liked. It’s the retort so many people crave to redress Kate’s taming in “Shrew.” The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Shakespeare Project productions of “Shrew” are so rich and entertaining that audiences won’t leave in need of a palate cleanser. But if you want to see Shakespeare in dialogue with one of his most celebrated contemporaries, and you want to see the play that was originally preferred to “Shrew,” then you won’t want to miss The Tamer Tamed. The times in which the Bard was writing won’t ever look the same.

NOTES:

There are two widely available editions of “The Tamer Tamed”: one edited by Celia R. Daileader and Gary Taylor for Revels that champions the play’s feminism; the other edited by Lucy Munro for New Mermaids that takes a more cautious approach.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is Assistant Professor of English at Linfield College and scholar in residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project.

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WEDNESDAY: An introduction to the Portland and Ashland productions.

THURSDAY: Who does the taming, and who’s getting tamed?

FRIDAY: A Sly figure and an alternate text shift the balance of the play.

TODAY: The final episode–Fletcher’s “The Tamer Tamed.”

 

 
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