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Director’s Word: Ed Sylvanus Iskandar

I am determined to look Kate’s last speech square in the eye. It is one of the most symmetrical, beautifully composed pieces of rhetoric in all of Shakespeare, and I have never seen it performed without irony or subtext. And it isn’t ironic. It is the sound of someone who is smooth, composed and gracefully iambic; not someone putting on a show.

I also knew that, for me to honor that speech properly, it had to be with a male Kate. It seems monstrous to ask a woman to perform it in today’s world, but it’s a bitter irony that I’m not using women in order to mount a show about a woman’s point of view. I believe, however, that diversity exists beyond the normative scope of gender. This production makes space for different masculinities, and for the femaleness inherent within maleness. After all, misogyny is not the problem of the woman, but that of the male world that perpetrates it. As luck has it, the Public Theater has just announced an all-female production of Shrew with exactly the same running dates as ours, and maybe this play can only be produced this way now.

This all-male company is a proxy for my own adolescence. I was seven when I left my home country for England. I understood who I was—my class, gender, diversity, sexuality—only within the confines of a purely homosocial environment: an aristocratic boys’ school. I left England at 18 for America to get away from that version of myself who had assimilated so fully. I had no understanding of who I could be outside of that person, and I didn’t like him very much.

These experiences connected me to Kate. I realized that I saw myself in Kate’s sense of outsiderness and “otherness,” and in her remarkable capacity for adaptation and survival. Shakespeare understood how it is possible for any human being, no matter how trapped, to undergo a full molecular change, to choose a new way to be. Kate’s transformation is an extraordinary emotional event, and I hope to portray it onstage with the fullness and sincerity it deserves. All of us are othered in some way: by gender, race, class, education, even privilege. And so are our Paduans, who find themselves in a world where otherness manifests in these different diversities.  They are no different than us: in this day and age, is there such a thing as normal?

When Shakespeare was writing Shrew, he would have heard about the Medici wedding of 1589, which included a theatrical event that became all the rage:  the intermezzo, a self-sustaining entertainment that offered a contrast to textual narrative. The intermezzo encouraged the use of the newfangled devices of music and dance to enhance theatrical storytelling. Music and dance were becoming an important part of Shakespeare’s theatre, and we are using the same tools to tell our version of this story.

If we’ve felt a need to expand the text (a text built on opaque motivations), we do as Shakespeare did often and add music; if and when that is not enough, we add dance. Above all, we are filling and shaping the contours of the story as it lands for us, today. Shakespeare’s central narrative is positioned within a fuller world, in which each character is treated as an individual and given the same opportunity for transformation. After all, who am I to direct a play about othering if there are characters on stage who are insignificant? There can be no insignificance in a world that seeks to express the fullness of our diversity.

I had just started working on a new musical with Duncan Sheik when Michael invited me to create Shrew. As I got to know Duncan’s music, I realized I was listening to the sound of my own adolescence. Duncan never writes from a point of irony or cynicism, and his songs express vivid emotional life, full of sincere desire, need and love. I started imagining a world where I could give voice to characters without the agency to express their inner lives, and because Duncan’s work is so intensely personal, I realized that his songbook would provide the perfect—if untraditional—soliloquies.

I’m not interested in trying to create a Padua that Shakespeare never visited. This is an imagined Italy, one that was already a legendary site of romance in Shakespeare’s time. It was also a place where love was synonymous with commodity. This production starts in the marketplace of identity, where all our characters package and sell themselves to the highest bidder. Everyone’s play begins when they learn how they perpetrate this upon themselves. Only then can the transformation begin.

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