The Taming of the Shrew: In Which Charles McMahon Dicks Me Into Submission

Posted: March 26, 2015 in Cara Blouin, reviews
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Cara Blouin

Well, I guess now I’m going to put my petulant little fists on my lady hips and rant about how The Lantern put on an unironic production of The Taming of the Shrew. Isn’t that just so typical? I’ll probably bray about things like agency and consent until everyone is just bored and tired. Listen, I don’t like it any more than you do, but I’m going to keep acting like this until someone finally succeeds in shutting my bitch mouth.

Now, when I was in college I had a boyfriend who said that women who behave this way just need a deep dicking, but I don’t know. I got dicked pretty deep at The Lantern tonight and here I am typing.

The Lantern has a cool history of not giving a fuck who gets hurt by what they do. Who can forget the time Makoto Hirano dared to ask them to take some responsibility for their ignorant-ass ching-chong Julius Ceasar? Charles McMahon, Artistic Director and lovable scamp, tossed off a trite “sorry you were offended”-non-apology even as he announced the next seasons’ The Taming of the Shrew, set in fiery, Latiny Latin America. We may never know what happened to that Argentine setting between the season announcement and tonight’s preview, but the cultural magpiery with which McMahon plucked the tango from its home and feathered his generic Italian nest can reassure us that all he took away from the Caesar flap was to make sure he’s got plausible deniability.

Oh, but I promised you shrill feminine outrage, and here I am prattling on about racism.

The Taming of the Shrew is about a bunch of guys who want to bone this girl who acts right, but they can’t because her older sister is always clamoring to control her own life and body in a tiresome way, resulting in her deserved spinsterhood. The father refuses to let the younger sister marry until someone relieves him of the older. So the suitors pay some jerk to marry the unlovable sister against her will. Problem solved, except even after she is forced into an arranged marriage to a gaslighting asshole, she’s STILL kicking up a fuss. Bitches, amirite? That’s the first half.

At intermission I saw some friends in the lobby and started to unleash some of the shitty I felt hanging out at a ritual shaming of ladies. But, and this is truly the magic of theater, midway through my rant. I got it.

I’m the joke!

All the best practitioners will tell you that the role of the theater is to hold a mirror up to society. Imagine the shock of recognition I felt when I saw myself there! Hysterical. Unlovable. Foolish. I totally got it.

I wish this were some kind of cute hyperbole, but actually, I really was embarrassed. In the middle of telling my friends how angry I was, I heard myself and I heard Kate. I saw that character on the stage, her anger made pathetic by the story and by the consent of the audience. I stopped feeling angry, and I resumed feeling small. That’s the genius of the Shrew story. If it pisses you off, it just binds you in the role. Then you can look through the eyes of that character and see the truth of how everyone sees you. It totally works. I sat down and I shut up.

In the next act, Kate’s husband denies her food and sleep and the chance to see her family until finally she breaks, and calls the sun the moon at his command. That is the happy ending. I’d like to say something pithy about it now, but the truth is that the experience of sitting there with that delighted audience succeeded in stealing my anger. Just like with the male actor in the cocktail gown, playing a secondary shrew for the final scene, the rage I was wearing like armor was grabbed away and used to dress someone who was mocking me. And now I just feel stupid, lonely and as though there isn’t any point to trying to get people to think of me as a person.

It’s so much worse because the actors were so good. I’m can’t blame actors for plays. God help them, it’s hard enough. They really were brilliant, professional and incredibly skilled. If you were so inclined, you could turn that talent to anything. Charles McMahon turned it into an endorsement of what he calls a love story. In his director’s notes he writes:

“Shakespeare’s women are smarter than their men, and the women tend to win when there’s a battle of the wills. On the surface, The Taming of the Shrew would seem to be an exception to that rule, but I contend that the real picture is more complicated.”

Yes. I could see how someone might read this story of abduction and torture into submission as an example of a woman “not winning.” But I guess deeper understanding is for more complicated minds than mine.

If Charles had left it alone, had not tried to justify his choice to put me through this experience, I could at least call him careless but since he’s obviously trying to explain that this play isn’t what it so obviously is, he either considered it or tried to look like he had. His excuse? It’s just a play!

McMahon explains that the problem with Shrew is not its treatment of Kate, but that lesser directors cut the vital first scene in which a group of actors decide to perform the story of Kate and her sister for the entertainment of a random drunk guy. As a result, McMahon explains, most theatergoers don’t see the “ironic distance with which the author framed the story.” For those untutored in dramatic convention, when a playwright frames a story as a play, he renders the content meaningless, and no one is allowed get upset about it.

Even within the safe confines of the play within the play, you’d have a hard time justifying this story without making it seem like the deep dicking was what the lady wanted all along, and don’t worry, McMahon does. He waxes romantic in his director’s notes “It is clear that these two characters need to be together.” He solves the problem of Kate’s post-transformation monologue about how important it is to be subservient to one’s husband with those great subverters of historical misogyny: sexy walking and almost touching guys’ dicks. These actions, when combined, signify to the audience that regardless of what words are coming out of her mouth, or what has happened to her in the story, the lady character is the most powerful one on stage.

Charles McMahon, why did you do this? If you think the stories you tell don’t matter, why do you spend so much time and treasure telling them? If you do think they matter, why aren’t you careful about what stories you tell? Tonight you told me that it’s still fun to see the breaking of an outspoken woman without reflection or comment. Charles, I hear that all the time. And it matters because I’m almost persuaded that it’s true. So if you were trying to remind me how unwanted I am in this world, you did. And if that isn’t what you were trying to do, then shame on you for your lazy fucking irresponsibility.

I want plays to matter, but not like this. Not because they have the power to throw me into self-doubt by force-feeding me fucked up ideas that have been arbitrarily deemed untouchable. It hurts and it’s boring. I keep going back to this place where I sit in the dark longing for a human in real space and real time to tell me that I’m not alone, and instead I keep getting ruthlessly reminded that I am.

I’d be so angry if I weren’t so tired.

  1. Lee Thomson says:

    ouch. I was obsessed with Shrew for far too long, and now I share your outrage, and I am so sorry they stole that outrage and made you alone again. I don’t think there is any way to salvage the play for my sensibilities – modern be damned, I personally want to be able to love it and sit with it.

    (I followed the pointer of a friend of yours who left it at the-toast’s open friday post – you may have an influx of readers!)

  2. Sara Davis says:

    I also came to this post via The Toast, and bookmarked it because I already had tickets to see the play. I’ve seen a few different versions of Taming, and while it’s not my favorite for obvious reasons, I was happy to go along with some friends to enjoy Kate’s righteous fury and Bianca’s self-possessed flirting, and to see how Kate’s terrifying final monologue was handled. Your writing resonated with me and your critique seemed entirely plausible, so I was prepared for the worst but hoped for something better.

    Thus prepared, I was not taken aback by the blatant romanticization of gaslighting and abuse, but I WAS pretty surprised at how inexpertly the whole play was handled! I had the sense that the actors were talented, but that they had been given a lot of unnecessary stage business to do: Kate’s vindicating rants against patriarchy were almost unintelligible at all-caps yelling volume, Bianca’s moony sighs were given so much more airtime that her awesome command of her suitors, and Petruccio’s villainy was made cartoonish by excessive pivoting and peacocking. The patchwork of different styles–1930s! tango! slapstick! camp!–felt inorganic and dizzying. When the lights went up for intermission, my group turned to each other and asked “What did we just see?!”

    In the second act, a lightbulb went off–50 Shades! Domination through submission! The elbow-length gloves gave it away. I guess that’s one way to play off their marriage as “romance”: draw on the popularity of another abusive dom and reluctant sub. (But to be fair, the actress playing Kate really shone in those scenes at a normal volume, and she made Kate’s survival strategy seem a lot more real than most other elements of that production.)

    In sum: I went in hoping that I’d have cause to disagree with you, but I don’t, and on top of that I’ve seen college Shakespeare productions that were more polished and intelligently interpreted. Don’t even get me started on that offensive framing device; it was played purely for the gag and provided very little in the way of “ironic distance” or whatever.

    I went with four women: one wasn’t feeling well and left at intermission; one only too happily escorted the first and did not return; the third had not seen or read many Shakespeare plays and felt bewildered and disappointed (“Are they all like this?”); the fourth felt embarrassed for having arranged the outing. As for myself: this was my first Lantern theater production and I don’t think I will risk another.

  3. That was a powerful read. Thank you.

  4. […] I found a woman’s blog about seeing this play by a specific director who apparently thrives on being as “edgy” as possible with his […]

  5. […] is a director in Philadelphia. She wrote this about the Lantern’s production of Taming of the Shrew last […]

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