Thursday, March 23, 2023
March 23, 2023

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Tough love in VSAA’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Shakespeare's play from 1594 presented in 2016, set in groovy 1970s

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Petruchio, played by Tristan Boesch, makes a dramatic entrance to his wedding during a performance of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics on Friday.
Petruchio, played by Tristan Boesch, makes a dramatic entrance to his wedding during a performance of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics on Friday. (Samuel Wilson for the Columbian) Photo Gallery

What the heck was William Shakespeare thinking?

The Renaissance poet and playwright, 1564-1616, was years ahead of his time in probing modern problems: existential uncertainty in “Hamlet,” racism and bigotry in “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice,” political ambition in “Macbeth.” And across many plays, from “Much Ado About Nothing” to “Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare shows unmistakable sympathy for the plight of strong, smart women in a world ruled by men.

But then there’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

It’s no exaggeration to call its subject the battle between the sexes. The three-day run of the play that wraps up at 6 p.m. Saturday in the courtyard at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics features expertly choreographed, slightly alarming physical combat between Petruchio, the scheming husband, and Katherine, his unruly and dangerous bride. Petruchio’s strategy is to best Katherine at her game of absurd nastiness, and he sure succeeds. Katherine’s bad behavior is essentially tortured out of her via starvation, sleep deprivation and mental trickery, and she shrinks from roaring tiger to humble kitten:

“I am ashamed that women are so simple

To offer war where they should kneel for peace;

Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,

When they are bound to serve, love and obey.”

Petruchio rewards this by inviting Katherine to bed. The end.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is certainly Shakespeare’s most controversial work. “I strongly disagree with everything she just said,” was one student’s reaction to that final monologue, according to director and VSAA drama teacher Seth Olson.

“At first I was kind of upset about the way women are treated in this play,” said leading lady and rising senior Courtney Wilmington, 17, who plays Katherine. “But I took it as a challenge” both to honor the norms of Shakespeare’s time — and to gain a deeper understanding of these characters as individuals, not just generic symbols of conflict.

Because, Wilmington and Olson both said, the key to this play is the fact that Katherine and Petruchio actually are an excellent match; each is drawn to the other’s outsized character and courage.

“She likes his spontaneity. She likes that he doesn’t care what the world thinks,” Wilmington said. “And when no one likes Kate, he’s the first person who actually does.”

Totally devious

“Most people either love the play or hate it,” Olson said. “I think it’s hilarious. The fights are a riot. It’s one of my favorites.”

Those slapstick fights between Wilmington and rising senior Tristan Boesch, who plays Petruchio, were carefully worked out to accentuate the witty verbal sparring between these loving enemies. “They keep trying to one-up each other. We tried to match the verbal play with physical play,” Wilmington said. Bruises and scrapes are rare, she said — but they’ve happened.

Some have argued that Katherine’s oppression is so cruel and her conversion so unbelievably tidy, Shakespeare’s audience would not have liked it any more than we do. Perhaps his real intent was deeply biting satire — a moral correction aimed at husbands in the audience who recognize themselves as the real shrews?

Katherine has good reason to be angry, Olson pointed out: She’s actually the most honest, upfront, respectable person in the play, but feels powerless and universally reviled; meanwhile, her younger sister Bianca is adored but “totally devious,” Olson said. “There’s a real interesting contrast there.”

Groovy 1970s

This is the second year that Olson has offered an intense, three-week “Shakespeare Summer” at VSAA; last year’s offering was “Twelfth Night.” He’s tried to generate interest throughout the Vancouver Public Schools district, but so far the only participants have been VSAA students, he said. He’s hoping for more next year, he said.

This production has been “an embarrassment of riches,” Olson said, for the way its cast has enthusiastically delved into the text — and heatedly debated its problems.

“The Taming of the Shrew” first appeared in 1594, but this version is set in the groovy 1970s — partially because that was a time when “women’s liberation” was really shaking up traditional gender roles, but mostly because “it’s very hilarious, costume-wise,” Olson said. “We’ve got some pretty wild and crazy patterns.” Hippie dresses and wide lapels abound.

The show’s been staged at breakneck speed, he added: a scant three weeks of preparation in all. “Most plays we do at VSAA take about three months,” Olson said. “The fact that they are up in front of audiences on an outdoor stage, rattling off Shakespearean text, in such a condensed amount of time, is really impressive.”

If You Go

• What: “The Taming of The Shrew” by William Shakespeare, presented by the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, directed by Seth Olson.

When: 6 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Outdoor courtyard at VSAA, off F street at 31st. Street address is 3101 Main Street.

• Cost: Free.

• Seating:Bring a chair.