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May 29, 2009

Dean’s Shrew keeps the Bard on the edge

Spring has arrived in Chicago, bringing a bit of a Shakespeare frenzy with it. From Steppenwolf’s ultra-modernist Tempest to the more traditional interpretation of Twelfth Night by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Bard is in season. Now, the U of C’s own Dean’s Men adds to the mix with its latest production of Shakespeare’s comedy of love and control, The Taming of the Shrew.

The play focuses on the two daughters of an Italian lord: Katherine (first-year Annie Considine) and her younger sister, Bianca (first-year Nabila Abdelnabi). Their father has decreed that Bianca, the object of many nobles’ affections, cannot be married before her elder sister, which would not be a problem if Kate were not the eponymous temperamental shrew. After the lords Lucentio (third-year Blake Obuchowski) and Petruchio (fourth-year and Dean’s Men president Danny Riemer) arrive in town, Lucentio quickly falls in love with Bianca and disguises himself as part of a scheme to win her love.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because Shakespeare’s classic comedy has had a few modern retellings. 10 Things I Hate About You was adapted from the play, featuring teen heartthrobs Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the roles of Kate and Petruchio. But the entertaining, if saccharine, film did away with some of the less politically correct themes of the play. Modern critics of Shrew have pointed to its misogynistic overtones, less taboo in 16th-century Britain than today. In one scene, Petruchio plays trumpet to keep his wife from sleeping and tricks her into refusing food so that he can overcome her stubborn will. “These two things are considered torture—sleep and food deprivation,” noted Reimer.

The Dean’s Men’s production does not shy away from these chauvinistic themes, according to Riemer and third-year Greg Brew, director of the production. “I think if the play is going to have any effect,” said Riemer, “you need to see Petruchio as he’s written, which is a pretty outlandish and unapologetic shrew-tamer.” Brew suggests that even these offensive themes allow us to examine complex issues. “We’re not hiding from the misogyny,” Brew said. “But at the same time, it’s a comedy. It’s supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be lighthearted. That leaves the door open for the audience to think whatever they want to think.”

The play embraces an informal production style in its set design, costuming, and musical accompaniment. “Our soundtrack is stuff from Belle and Sebastian and David Bowie,” executive producer Alice Magelssen said. “Someone once described the way we did our shows as ‘non-committal.’” In other words, no sequins or tunics. Instead, actors can be seen offstage changing into modern costumes and setting props, a nod to The Taming of the Shrew’s play-within-a-play. “It’s a play that’s aware of itself, of it being a play,” Brew said in reference to the introduction of the play, where a theatre troupe performs Shrew for another character in the framing story.

For those wanting to brush up on the Shakespeare behind their favorite romantic comedy, or for those wanting a show on a beautiful night al fresco, the Dean’s Men and The Taming of the Shrew are sure to please.