The King (and Time) and I

We saw The King and I last night at the San Diego Civic Theatre. It was a great show, evocatively staged and powerfully performed. But I also found it uncomfortably dated. The “Buddhist prayer” routines had me squirming in my seat, and the “happy ending” of Siam adopting Western habits of deference put me in mind of Shylock’s forced conversion. The difference is that today, the last few scenes of The Merchant of Venice are often played as ambivalent or even negative, but the ending of The King and I is positively bubbly.

I wondered if my reaction was a 21st-century response to a mid-century musical or perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein. But South Pacific addressed issues of racism (“They Have to be Carefully Taught”) in the same ways that The King and I reinforced them (“Western People Funny”). And, of course, 400+ years on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be relevant.

Perhaps the problem with modern plays lies in licensing restrictions. The King and I can’t be set in any time or place other than Victorian Siam. But what if it could? It’d be an interesting idea to set it in, say, the White House of any recent presidential administration – take your pick. Suddenly the condescension, the almost willful misunderstandings between various sides, the search for a rational way forward, shifts from being a time capsule to being scathingly relevant. Imagine setting The Sound of Music, with its pivotal cross-border flight, in today’s world.

The genius of Shakespeare may lie in the constant reinvention of his plays. Modern plays, with few exceptions, stagnate, frozen in time, with an audience primed for passive viewing instead of engagement. Maybe that’s why I love seeing Shakespeare’s plays: they’re always new.

Amazon Warehouse Deal Year-End Close-Out Books

Right after Christmas, Amazon had a year-end Warehouse Deal close-out with additional discounts on refurbished, open box, and returned merchandise. So, while the rest of the world shopped electronics and stuff, I went hunting books.

Here’s what I found: Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington’s Communities in Early Modern England (2000), Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton’s Shakespeare: Staging the World (2012), and Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (1987). My total, including a 2” binder I needed, was less than $20. Any one of those books would have cost that much – such a deal!

Amazon Warehouse Deal bargain books, front covers.
My finds in the Amazon year-end Warehouse Deal close-out sale. All this and a binder for under $20!

These Amazon Warehouse Deals were one-offs, so you can’t find them now. You might find the same titles in different conditions, and of course you could always buy them new.

I’ve had mixed luck with Amazon’s in-house Warehouse Deals. Once I bought a mechanical keyboard that, despite the “inspected” tag, had a permanently jammed space bar and missing pieces. Fortunately, returning it was easy, and Amazon even paid the return shipping.

Communities in Early Modern England was rated Used – Very Good, with a note about a small wrinkle/bend on back cover. I had to look twice to see it. The Schoenbaum was rated Used – Good, with notes about medium wrinkles/bends and cuts/scratches on the front cover, and medium wrinkled/bent pages. I think it’s graded accurately, and am well satisfied with my purchase. The big hardcover book was a surprise, as I’d expected a paperback. It was rated Used – Like New. But, the sleeve is more than a bit ripped, and the front cover and flyleaf has broken apart from the first interior signature. Still, at $3.40 for this particular copy, I’m content to believe that the condition rating was a keystroking error on someone’s part. A little tape, and it’ll be fine for my purposes albeit too heavy to read in bed.

Amazon Warehouse Deal books, backs
That middle book was listed as “Like New,” but for $3.40 I’m OK with it.

Taken all in all, I’d say Amazon’s warehouse deal books are a little worse for the wear compared to what I typically receive from other online sellers of used books (including those that sell through Amazon), but the knock-down prices and free two-day shipping made it worthwhile.

The one I’m most excited to dig into is Shepard & Withington’s Communities in Early Modern England. It’s a scholarly collection of interdisciplinary essays exploring three aspects of community: networks, place, and rhetoric. Work intervenes, though, and as this is purely recreational reading I’ll have to wait a bit before wading in.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions: a quick review

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Editions: a brand-new series with a different approach.

I had the incredible good fortune to win a set of all three volumes in this just-released series from Arden Shakespeare! As you can see, they are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), Hamlet (also edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), and Romeo and Juliet (edited by Paul Menzer).

Arden Performance Editions are published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare. The series general editors are Michael Dobson and Abigail Rokison-Woodall from the Shakespeare Institute, and veteran actor Simon Russell Beale. This team has a unique blend of skills, with Dobson anchoring the academic end, Beale the performance end, and Rokison-Woodall bridging both worlds as an actor turned academic specializing in Shakespearean verse speaking. Together, they’ve created a series that reboots the way Shakespeare’s plays are printed. In addition to these three titles, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Twelfth Night are in preparation.

The books are designed around performance. So, play text and stage directions are on the left, notes are on the right, and there’s lots of white space for annotations – even the line spacing is generous. Act/Scene/Line index numbers in the upper left corners make it easy to flip to the desired part of the play. The concise notes include definitions, pronunciation, syllabic accents and elisions, and selected textual variations.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Edition sample interior spread showing ample white space for notes
Allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s favourite soliloquy from Hamlet. Note the Act/Scene/Line index number in the upper left corner and the scanning guide for line 31.

I quickly came to love having notes at the same eye level as the text to which they relate. It’s significantly quicker and easier to glance to the right to get a meaning, than to constantly look up and down between text and a dense pile of notes on the bottom of the page. With these books, even note-dependent reading can continue virtually uninterrupted, making them ideal for following a recorded performance or reading aloud. This is a great example of design enhancing functionality.

The introductory material includes performance-specific notes on the variant texts and certain key issues, such as, in Hamlet, the placement of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s age.

Although the books in this series were created for actors and directors, their sheer vivacity and user-friendliness makes them ideal for students and teachers too. They add just enough information to bring the language to life without getting bogged down in details. And, the academic material in the introductory sections seems written to stimulate further thought rather than to provide in-volume pedantic minutae; bullet points hit the highlights and serve up examples.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions are large paperbacks
The Ardens are big, well-made paperbacks.

The books themselves are oversized paperbacks, and the ample white space that makes their pages so inviting also adds bulk. Here’s a comparison Hamlet to Hamlet. The Bantam fits into jeans pockets; the Arden takes up much of a laptop case accessory pocket. Aside from most of the text, the two editions have little in common, and I will refer to both extensively. I have to say, though, that of the two, the Arden Performance Edition is by far easier to read, annotate, and use. I think it will be my go-to copy for day-to-day use.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Edition Shakespeare titles as of December 2017.

A huge thank you to Arden Shakespeare – first, for sending me this wonderful prize package, and second, for producing this fantastic new series!

Romeo and Juliet at The Old Globe

The Old Globe, in partnership with University of San Diego, offers the Shiley Graduate Theatre Program, a two-year MFA course in classical theatre. It admits only seven students per year, selected from applicants nationwide. This was the first time I’ve seen an MFA performance at The Old Globe.

The Old Globe is a campus of three theatres. Romeo and Juliet was performed in the most intimate of them, the in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. The closeness to the actors added to the sense of immediacy as the play unfurled rapidly almost within arm’s reach.

I liked the way the play was divided, with a boisterous, joyfully bawdy first half and a second half heavy with foreboding. The intermission came at the announcement of Mercutio’s death offstage, a great way to stage the turning point.

Most productions set up Mercutio and Tybalt as opposites: a funny, street-wise Mercutio facing off against an icy, ornately cultured Tybalt. This one offered a refreshing change: Mercutio and Tybalt were paired punks, a smoldering love/hate coupling emphasized by Tybalt being a tattooed young woman. They danced with each other, erotically, at the Capulet’s party, a heated reflection of Romeo and Juliet.

But if Mercutio and Tybalt echoed each other in dress and behavior, their weapons were characteristically unique: Mercutio wielded a katana, Tybalt a matched pair of long daggers. The pivotal duel was a gleeful, sexually charged power play on both sides until Romeo got in the way. Mercutio’s death seemed accidental, with Tybalt looking on in horror before fleeing. As the lights closed the first half, there hung in my thoughts a hint of edgeplay gone terribly wrong. And, as the second half opened, Tybalt returned as if going to the gallows, and her defense against Romeo’s furious attack seemed half-hearted.

Creating a Mercutio-Tybalt relationship made Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hands much more believable. I’ve always had to suspend disbelief that Tybalt, an acknowledged expert fighter, could lose to Romeo. But, if Tybalt was indeed Mercutio’s lover, her willingness to follow him in death neatly foreshadowed the deaths of the principals.

It occurs to me that I’ve spent all this time discussing Mercutio and Tybalt, and none on Romeo and Juliet. That’s because Romeo and Juliet can be little more than lovesick teenagers mooning over each other, whereas this Mercutio and Tybalt had bite. After all, which pair is more interesting, Claudio and Hero or Benedick and Beatrice? Yup, there ya go.

I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet live at least twice before, both excellent but conventional productions, and own two versions on DVD (BBC Shakespeare and Baz Luhrmann). This live production showed how performance choices can remake the story afresh. We all know the play and how it ends tragically, but the creative team managed well the trick of making me feel like everything might come out OK after all. That, I think, is the key to Shakespearean tragedy in performance: giving real glimmers of hope before it goes dark for the last time rather than an inevitable glide to black.

Globe for All Twelfth Night

Every year, as part of its relatively new Globe for All program, The Old Globe performs a Shakespeare play for free at various community venues. Twelfth Night is the third Globe for All performance our family has seen.

The venue we attend, at the San Diego Central Library, uses the Shiley Special Events Suite on the 9th floor – the roof – of the downtown library. This floor is set up as a miniature campus, with individual buildings set in a open rooftop space. The Shiley Special Events Suite is a standalone structure with a back-of-the-house catering area fronted by a soaring open space with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views and lashings of natural afternoon light.

Because the performances use community spaces, the staging is created around the absence of a stage in the traditional sense. At the Central Library, the stage was set square in the middle of the room with rows of chairs on each of the four faces. Each corner was left open for entrances and exits. Props were arrayed on tables on three sides, with the fourth side having the prompt/call book, and all the costuming and prep took place in full view of the audience, although behind the opposite bank of seats.

Before the show started, the play’s director took the stage to do a quick warm-up/survey of the audience, including some fun audience participation bits to get people into the swing of Shakespearean language in performance.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Twelfth Night, here’s a six-sentence version. Viola and Sebastian are twins of minor nobility, indistinguishable except that one is a woman and one is a man. They are separated in a shipwreck in which each thinks the other has died. Stranded in a hostile country, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and enters the service of the local Duke Orsino, who uses Cesario to deliver messages of love to Olivia, a local countess. Olivia refuses Orsino, but falls in love with Cesario, which is bad because not only is Cesario in fact Viola, but Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. A major subplot involves the gulling of Olivia’s arrogant steward Malvolio by her chambermaid and houseguests. Unbeknownst to anyone, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives in town and much chaos ensures before the twins are reunited and the couples sort themselves into traditionally gender-appropriate pairs.

The play was done in modern dress, but the text was Shakespeare’s. The set was simple: two chaise longues with an elaborate drinks cart between them, a slightly extravagant patio chair, a brace of potted plants, a floor mat indicating water, and another floor mat indicating a boardwalk or perhaps a dock. Illyria was set on the U.S./Mexico border, a trenchant update.

To emphasize the bicultural nature of the story, several lines were spoken in Spanish, some throw-away lines and other key lines that were either understood in context or essentially restated in English. The musical interludes were particularly outstanding, making full use of several performers who could play guitar and sing as well as act. A few PG-rated lines and actions were included, but they were done in ways that put them more in the potty humor class; the small children in the audience were as tickled as the adults. And, in a fun revision, the fencing duel was rendered as a boxing mismatch between a towering but cowering Sir Andrew and a petite but reluctantly game Viola/Cesario.

Because the play was performed in daylight and in the round, the action and actors were far less isolated than in conventional stagings. Audience members in the first rows found themselves made part of the play as actors interacted with them, hid behind them, ran through them, or even asked for help with a particular prop, all of which made the story come even more to life.

If there was any loss it was that the streamlined interpretation gave short shrift, in varying degrees, to secondary characters: Malvolio became more bumptious, Sir Toby Belch more depraved, Sir Andrew more vapid, and Feste more yobbish, all as suited a performance focused on Olivia and Viola’s parallel journeys to love.

The great gain, in these Globe for All performances, is that they are followed by a question-and-answer period in which the audience can engage with the actors and the play.

The Globe for All program deserves kudos for bringing live Shakespeare into the community and making it free and easy for everyone to experience. Twelfth Night continues for five more performances, including two final shows on Sunday, November 19, at The Old Globe’s rehearsal space inside Balboa Park’s House of Charm. That’s the week San Diego schools are off for Thanksgiving break, so there’s no school the next day and no excuse for not taking the kids!

My personal Shakespeare weekend

It wasn’t intentional; in fact, both were last-minute things. But, I ended up seeing seeing two of Shakespeare’s plays in one weekend. That’s not quite a festival, but it’s more than I usually get to see.

On Thursday, I learned that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be closing Sunday at San Diego City College, so I got tickets for Friday night’s performance and we made a big family night out of it. Although I’ve seen a few productions on DVD and streaming, this was my first time seeing it live.

The production set the action in a wharfside New York alley circa 1953. Theseus was the CEO of the slightly seedy Athens Insurance Company, and Oberon and Titania beatnik leaders. “The Boy” was an encyclopedia of beatnik knowledge.  Few other changes were needed: Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius remained establishment youths; Puck retained his mysterious, magical qualities; the rude mechanicals remained solidly working class.

The cast of mostly young theater students was energetic, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Any scholarly Shakespearean depth that was diffused in delivery was more than made up for in sheer joie de vivre. It’s a fun play, and fun is the way to play it.

The set design was exceptional for its detail and depth, and the director encouraged everyone to take pictures of the stage and post them online as part of the theater department’s promotional efforts. I especially liked the wire-frame donkey’s head fitted to Bottom, which conveyed the right impression while allowing the audience to see Bottom’s facial expressions. Theseus/Oberon was doubled but Hippolyta and Titania were played by different young women, which lent a frisson of infidelity to the alpha male/s. Jazz music and dance numbers rounded out a thoroughly entertaining performance. Well roar’d, well run, well shone, and well played San Diego City College cast and crew!

Then I found out that Sunday was the final day of on-demand streaming of Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, a recorded livestream from the Barbican Centre in London. So, Sunday afternoon I settled down to watch. I’d seen it live at The Old Globe a few years ago.

Cheek by Jowl delivered a minimalist, yet exquisitely engineered stage on which performances simmered to explosion. In a stroke of genius, Leontes’ son and heir Mamillius was played as a precocious child perhaps on the autism spectrum, which seemed connected to Leontes’ inexplicably intractable delusion and later unyielding self-abuse. Leontes’ own position on that same spectrum was the neatest explanation I’ve seen for his behavior. Another sweet twist: the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo in disguise at the sheep-shearing festivities in Bohemia was echoed by the doubling of Hermione/Dorcas and Paulina/Mopsa.

While the live audience stretched their legs for the interval, the recorded livestream had an interview with the founders and directors of Cheek by Jowl, Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan. One key takeaway came from Nick Ormerod, talking about the minimalism of the set (in stark contrast to the City College production): “The essence of the theatre is in the imagination of the audience.”

And here’s rather longer excerpt from Donnellan, about Shakespeare’s writing:

I don’t think that he was some genius who spent hours and hours and hours, sweating, sweating, sweating; it doesn’t feel like that way to me. It feels like he was somebody who wrote fast … it was intuitive. And every now and then, when there are some laborious stretches in Cymbeline, when you feel he has maybe sweated a bit over something. But it’s not very often. But at his greatest, you know, it comes burning off the page.”

This production of The Winter’s Tale came burning off the screen, a powerful show that I feel privileged to have seen.

And that was my personal Shakespeare weekend, half shared with family and the other half savored on my own. Perfect!

Literary MOOCs: FutureLearn and Hillsdale College

I’ve taken Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) since their early days. I audited online classes back when the videos were grainy classroom lectures, shot from the back of the hall and accompanied by sound that cut out when anyone coughed, dropped a pen, or even rustled loudly.

Things have come a long way since. Over the years I’ve taken dozens of courses for business and pleasure through Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, Shaw Academy, and Hillsdale College. Recently, I found myself simultaneously taking a class on Hamlet and The Tempest from Hillsdale College and a class on Robert Burns from the University of Glasgow on FutureLearn, and was struck by the differences.

FutureLearn courses are divided into weeks, which are subdivided into multiple units, sometimes 20 or more, that you take in order. Units can consist of short videos, readings, activities, or quizzes. Hillsdale College courses are divided into weeks, with each week getting a single lecture of 40-50 minutes and a Q&A video that goes up to an hour or so, plus a quiz.

Of the two, FutureLearn courses are by far more interactive. The FutureLearn platform has a discussion forum attached to each unit, so each small piece has a digital space in which to explore it further. With courses having hundreds or thousands of participants scattered all over the globe, forum activity is constant and there’s a lot of back-and-forth within a diverse community of learners. I find I learn as much from interactions with fellow learners, many of whom have a high level of expertise in the subject, as I do from actual course content. And, course mentors and educators occasionally answer questions or clarify key points. The level of academic discussion is both voluminous and pleasantly high, at the high school to college level.

Hillsdale College has a single forum for the whole course. The activity level, reflecting enrollment, is many orders of magnitude lower than that in FutureLearn. The instructors do not seem to participate in the forum, so questions go unanswered unless a fellow learner replies with an answer. Discussions among learners can happen, but conversations develop slowly, if at all. Hillsdale is a politically right-leaning, Christian-based liberal arts college that attracts a fairly conservative population in its online courses, so the sparsely utilized forum can feel dominated by discussions of Shakespeare’s works in that light. Despite excellent course content, pitched at the high school to college level, I found the academic level of discussion to be relatively basic.

FutureLearn courses are augmented by on-location filming, activity-based modules, peer-assessed writing assignments, and links to resources outside FutureLearn. Production standards are excellent. Video transcripts are available online and as PDF downloads, and most videos have accurate closed captioning available. Video and audio files can be downloaded, as can other course materials.

Hillsdale College’s course is comparatively low-tech: a talking head lecture-style video with few visual aids followed by a filmed Q&A segment and an online quiz. That said, the professors are engaging and easy to listen to for extended periods, and the lectures jam-packed with great insights. Production and audio quality are good to excellent, but subtitles/closed captions are not available on all videos, nor are transcripts available. However, lectures and the Q&A segments can be downloaded as audio files.

The quizzes are similar but different. Hillsdale College lets you retake quizzes, recording only your highest score as you go along. FutureLearn gives you up to three tries to answer every question (usually multiple choice out of four) and if you complete at least 90% of the course, attempt every quiz question, and score an average of 70% on quizzes, you may qualify to buy a Certificate of Achievement (a relatively new offering) instead of a Certificate of Participation.

Although both courses are offered by legitimate, accredited institutions, neither course offers college credit or professional CEUs. Hillsdale College offers no digital badges or certificates for completing its courses. FutureLearn offers certificates only to learners who pay; certificates are delivered digitally (for use on online and social media) and via mail. Some FutureLearn courses, though, do offer academic credit.

FutureLearn recently made a major change, in most cases limiting free access to course content and in some cases requiring fees to take certain tests and receive a certificate. Those who sign up for classes for free get access to the course, course materials, and quizzes for the duration of the course plus two weeks; those who pay a course fee, either upon registration or by upgrading, get access to the course, course materials, quizzes, and tests for the foreseeable future, and in some classes they’ll get an additional final exam that, when passed, results in a certificate. FutureLearn also recently began offering certificate programs and degrees, mostly related to information technology.

In contrast to FutureLearn’s scheduled and time-limited approach, Hillsdale College’s courses offer the flexibility of starting or dropping in at any time. Think of them as streaming lectures, with quizzes attached to check your understanding. The current Hillsdale College online course catalog includes courses on Great Books: Ancient to Medieval, Great Books: Renaissance to Modern, and a new course on Mark Twain (currently running and not yet completed for streaming). At any given time, FutureLearn offers at least a couple literature courses covering different periods and genres. They are available to join any time during the run of the course, but interaction with other learners drops off precipitously if one starts after the first week or falls much more than a week behind.

I thoroughly enjoyed both online course experiences. The Hillsdale College online course was more of a solo spectator venture, like watching an educational program; the FutureLearn course was more of a social experience, with lots of engagement with other learners. Both have their place.

Online learning is the future of education. I look forward to many more years of learning online – and even one day developing a course of my own!

Much Ado About Nothing at the Coronado Playhouse

I just found this post I’d written and not posted. It’s a quickie about a stage production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Coronado Playhouse back in July.

The Coronado Playhouse has a tradition of putting on a free show every summer, usually Shakespeare. It’s funded by a grant from the City of Coronado, as well as support from patrons, sponsors, and members.

In the past, we’ve seen The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, and Hamlet. This year’s free Shakespeare play was Much Ado About Nothing.

It was performed in modern dress with a rousing pop soundtrack, set as a backyard barbecue welcoming home returning troops under the command of Major Don Pedro. In this hierarchy, Benedick and John the Bastard were captains, Claudio and Balthazar lieutenants, and Borachio and Conrade non-coms. Coronado has a rich military history, so the update added relevance.

Twists I especially liked:

  • The relationship between Dogberry and Verges was tilted; although Dogberry continued to be the superior officer, Verges was more in charge of Dogberry than vice versa.
  • Benedick had a solo dance number after being gulled into believing Beatrice loved him, which crept in organically and built up to a frenzy of exuberance, a physical “mountain of affection.”
  • When Claudio had finished eulogizing Hero and been escorted offstage, weeping, Hero entered, cast an eye over the epitaph left by Claudio, and then flashed a huge grin at the audience.
  • In a nifty sleight of hand, Claudio first planted then pulled Benedick’s attempted poem from his back pocket.

It’s always fun to see what modern directors make of old stories, and Shakespearean plays seem to lend themselves to fresh interpretations.

The Importance of Being Exton

I’ve seen a half-dozen productions of Richard II both live and (mostly) on DVD, and in most the knight Piers Exton, Richard’s killer, is swapped out for or combined with another character, most often Aumerle. I suspect two directorial motivations. First, to trim the cast. Second, to avoid having the play’s climactic Big Event occur at the hands of a character who is, at most, a silent background extra until more than half-way though Act V.

While the Exton/Aumerle swap adds a frisson of betrayal at the end, it’s a betrayal that to me usually rings hollow. Moreover, it misses two key points that I think are central to the play.

First, that threats to political stability don’t always come from major political players. While Henry Bolingbroke occupies most of the play’s – and Richard’s – attention, Bolingbroke doesn’t so much threaten the existing political order as represent its continuation. Even the dynastic line remains unbroken. Bolingbroke, arguably already heir to the throne, deposes. But Exton, a nobody out of nowhere, disposes.

Historically, a young Richard II faced down the Peasant’s Revolt, an uprising of relative sociopolitical nonentities who were treated as such – and worse – as soon as they were deceived and crushed. Having a minor character kill Richard both echoes and closes that earlier revolt.

Second – and, as a writer today I think this is the more-important point – Richard’s death at Exton’s hands shines a spotlight on the underbelly of political dialogue. It demonstrates how idle comments that may have been made by influencers (the audience has only Exton’s recollection, after all), including leaders but also including, oh, playwrights, can provoke unwanted violence from unexpected quarters. Exton’s importance lies in his unimportance.

Bolingbroke himself identifies this tremendous power very early in the play: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings.” (1.3.214-215)

I don’t think these are especially prescient points for Shakespeare to have made. After all, politics has been going on for a long, long time, and the fundamental issues are simply evergreen. But each generation discovers the truths anew for itself.

Thoughts on The Taming of the Shrew

My family has tickets for an upcoming performance of The Taming of the Shrew at a local community college. My teens are familiar with the story, sorta, from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which they really enjoyed.

The Taming of the Shrew is among the few Shakespeare plays I think often improve when adapted. 10 Things added to the story, while preserving its basic plot and even a few gags. A generation before, there was a wonderful episode of the detective drama/comedy Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, called “Atomic Shakespeare” (1986). It’s a retelling of The Shrew as a retelling of The Shrew in a brilliantly erratic mash-up of period dress, original dialog, and anachronistic references.

On the other hand, I find Kiss Me Kate (1948, 1953), McLintock! (1963) and the first-season episode of The Saint (“The Golden Journey,” 1962) to be condescending and regressive compared to Shakespeare’s play. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what a college drama department makes of it today.

To prepare, I read the play (Riverside) and watched two versions. The first was an American direct-to-video stage production starring Karen Austin and Franklyn Seales as Katherina and Petruchio (1982, currently available free via Amazon Prime). The second was the BBC-TV version starring Sarah Badel and John Cleese (1980).

To my surprise, neither included the introductory Induction with drunken tinker Christopher Sly being fooled into thinking he’s a nobleman watching a play put on by his servants. To me, that scene sets the stage, both literally and metaphorically, for a farcical view of events unfolding in a self-aware, self-mocking performance. Without that initial set-up, the viewer is dropped into first-world events happening as realistic comedy, instead of second-world events presented as parody.

In contrast, the Moonlighting episode not only preserves the framing device, but returns to it at the end, giving the story a final dismissive fillip in a snarky parody of Alexander Pope’s additions to the Sly character. That may be why I like that version so much.

However, with what we have of Shakespeare’s play, a complete framing device is non-canonical. Often, directors opt to delete it. What remains, though, then rests on a fundamental misogyny that takes considerable interpretive effort to soften or redirect.

This, by the way, is not a modern issue. Shakespeare’s successor, John Fletcher, wrote a popular sequel called The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed, in which a widowed and remarried Petruchio finds himself on the receiving end of such treatment as he dished out, with echoes of Lysistrata, and with similar results.

Many modern interpretations turn Katherina’s submission speech at the end into a spoof of obedience, during which she indicates to the audience that she means none of it. In other words, she isn’t “tamed.” That approach, though, calls into question the central love story, and turns the play into a mere contest between con artists – in which case, if Katherina is the wittier, why marry Petruchio?

(I feel, although the story is a farce, it’s still a love story. So Katherina and Petruchio should, for the sake of the story, be struck by real, passionate love for each other at first sight.)

Of the non-adapted versions, I rather heretically think the Yankee one surpasses the British in solving the problems. The American version begins with a physical setting of the stage, and continually reminds the viewer that one is watching a farce by incorporating vaudevillian performance jokes: everyone leaning to one side every time the word “Pisa” is said, en masse sighs at every mention of Bianca, and frequent direct eye contact through the fourth wall. That establishes and maintains the action within the realm of unreality, even without the Induction.

Every generation creates its own version of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m very excited to see a fresh one in a few days!