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Drewmaturgy: On Slys and Sheiks

Drewmaturgy Shrew Sly DSC_0405 (2)

The process of preparing the text of Taming of the Shrew with Ed Sylvanus Iskandar was a unique one in many respects. I’ve never worked with a director like Ed before. Ed has many ideas—he’s wonderfully fecund with them, in fact—and they’re not always your garden-variety ideas for working on a Shakespeare text. For instance, the very first thing he wanted to do was to cut the Christopher Sly Induction to the play. I just as quickly dug in my heels. My general rule of thumb is not to cut something from a Shakespeare play before you understand it, to humble yourself before the text. From one perspective, I even argued to Ed, the Christopher Sly Induction is a key to understanding the whole play.

For those who aren’t experts on The Taming of the Shrew, the play opens with a few very strange scenes utterly unlike anything else in the play. Petruchio and Katherina don’t appear. In fact, we’re not in the play’s Padua at all, but rather in a location that seems to be contemporary Warwickshire, outside Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. (Rather remarkably, perhaps with the exception of The Merry Wives of Windsor, this is the only depiction of contemporary England in any of Shakespeare’s plays.) In this miniature play-before-the-play the homeless drunkard and beggar, Christopher Sly, falls asleep in a tavern, where a Lord happens upon him. Playing a mean-spirited trick, the Lord dresses Christopher up in his fancy robes and, when he awakes, tricks him into thinking that he’s a lord. Sly has one of those unmistakably Shakespearean dream monologues in which sleep and waking intermingle, where one can hear the human mind groping through the sensory haze of dream:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep; I see, I hear, I speak,
I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.

Bottom and Caliban, speakers of famous dream monologues, ye have a baby brother named Sly.

Futhermore, the Lord convinces our poor Sly that a Page-Boy, dressed as a girl, is his wife. Sly then demands the duties of a husband, which is to say, he tries to force himself sexually on the Page-Boy. After this moment of horrifying sex comedy abates, Sly sits back and watches a troupe of actors perform a play-within-the-play for him (rather like “The Mousetrap” in Hamlet). The name of that play? The Taming of a Shrew, set in Padua and Verona, starring Petruchio, Katherina, and all the other familiar characters.

Nowhere else does Shakespeare open a play with such a cryptic, open-ended theatrical frame, one that posits a bawdy, drunken, very English “reality” through which we become audience to a heightened Italy. With remarkable economy, everything that we witness in this mini-play of Sly comes back in transfigured form in the Italian world. When Petruchio shows up to his own wedding dressed in the clothes of a beggar, or when he forces Kate (perhaps played by the same actor who played the Page-Boy) to take off her cap and trample it underfoot, I can’t help but think back on Sly, and on the moral symbolism of clothing woven throughout the play. Clothes may make the man, Shakespeare seems to be saying, but they tell us nothing about the person underneath.

In fact, the whole central drama between Petruchio and Kate is nothing more than an enlarged version of the Sly-Page tête-à-tête, which grotesquely enacts medieval marriage as a Punch-and-Judy show. Many critics and audiences have been troubled by The Taming of the Shrew, but it’s almost as if Shakespeare is critiquing the play for us, laying out baldly the problematics of the play for us in miniature.

As I started to explain all this to Ed, however, and listened to his vision for the show, I began to become excited about the possibility of cutting Sly. I realized that he couldn’t be less interested in a production of Shrew that privileges a Warwickshire “reality” as opposed to an Italian dreamworld. By removing our moorings in the world of Sly, where a man is a man, no matter what tricks are played on him, he was opening the doorway to a production that existed entirely in the not-quite-real location of Shakespeare’s Italy, a utopia in the true sense of the word (from u+topos, i.e. “no place”), where social and gender roles are not rooted in reality but mutable, capable of metamorphosis and discovery through the magic of performance.

Ed also wanted to use an all-male cast for his Shrew, but not in the antiquarian sense of original practices Shakespeare, which ironically now looks to us quite a bit like the dress-up in the Christopher Sly scenes. He wanted to lessen the focus on the battle-of-the-sexes conflict that has characterized productions of the play for the last hundred years, and pay new attention to the subtle shifts within characters both male and female. We don’t associate The Taming of the Shrew with profound psychological depths, perhaps because Shakespeare was writing at an early stage of his career and hadn’t yet mastered the art of writing character. But Ed wanted to address this head-on. Rather than merely trying to decode a text with obvious gaps in it, he felt like it needed some expansion, along with some TLC.

The most radical of Ed’s ideas, and the one that has me the most intrigued after what I will admit was some initial resistance, is his desire to open the structure of the play up using the songs of Duncan Sheik. Ed had been working with Duncan on workshops for a musical at the same time as he was cutting the play, and Duncan’s songs—bereft of irony, plangently emotional, free of judgment—wormed their way into his subconscious. One of the striking quirks of Shrew is its lack of internal life for its female characters. Bianca and Katherina, sisters in the play, nevertheless despise each other and don’t confide in each other, as Beatrice and Hero, Rosalind and Celia, and other female pairs from his later comedies do. Neither has a true soliloquy in the play, and as a result we have no idea how they truly feel, what they’re truly thinking. As the script evolved, Duncan’s songs entered to fulfill the function of soliloquies for Bianca and Katherina, as well as other figures who are otherwise as un-individuated as Sly’s poor Page-Boy.

All of this may sound like a lot, and it is. But I learned a very valuable lesson from working with Ed. Humbling yourself before the text is not always the answer. Sometimes you can try to figure out why something is there, and what it’s doing, until the cows come home, and get nowhere, until an outside perspective comes in and completely changes your understanding of the play. One of the great gifts in working on Shakespeare is that the plays aren’t going anywhere, and neither is Christopher Sly. But this Shrew is going to be unlike one that anyone has ever seen.

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