Hello! My name is Tom Bentsen and for the past six weeks I have had the opportunity to be a performance intern in Kiss Me, Kate and an intern with Education and Engagement here at The 5th Avenue Theatre. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Ensemble of the production while also researching Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate and their complications. All in all, I have found that subtle inversions and the direction of the material can contribute to the success of these problematic pieces.
Feuding divorcees, on- and off-stage violence and a rollicking musical reinvention of Taming of the Shrew – mix it together and the Tony Award-winning Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate emerges. Once the underdog of the 1948/49 Broadway season, Kiss Me, Kate has become Cole Porter’s most iconic piece and continues to fuel debate over its representation of gender stereotypes and misogyny. In response to that controversy, our current production hopes to resolve or alleviate some of the more problematic moments of the show.
The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare’s acclaimed comedy The Taming of the Shrew follows the strong-willed Katharine, whom no man desires to marry – at least until Petruchio comes to Padua and is determined to wed her to gain her father’s wealth. Petruchio aims to tame “Katharine the Curst” into a “wench like any other” by abusing her until she bows to his authority – the climax of course being the well-known “submission scene.” Many critics have protested that the play proposes that women should not be strong-willed or independent. Supporters have countered that the play is meant to be a satire against abuse and male dominance.
Going into my research on the play, I was under the impression that Taming of the Shrew was a comedy that aimed to attack gender stereotypes and misogyny through satire – which I have learned to be a very common interpretation. As far as my understanding went, Katharine was a strong and passionate woman that went against the traditional expectation of women at the time. However, I learned that the satirical point of view can be an effective interpretation of the piece.
Despite the slight discomfort within its original audiences, Taming of the Shrew was immediately applauded as a controversial-yet-comical satire by the English public and was enjoyed for many years.
However, in 1754 a new adaptation entitled Catherine and Petruchio was written and staged by David Garrick, and it entirely replaced Shakespeare’s original in England and America until 1844. David Garrick was a notable actor, producer, writer and manager in London who significantly guided English theatre throughout the 1700s. Garrick’s version accentuated violence, notably by giving Petruchio a whip for the first time, and exaggerating Catherine’s final submission. Catherine and Petruchio embodied the problems of Taming of the Shrew and in many cases removed the comedy of the piece, leaving a play explicitly proposing the subjugation of women. As Shakespeare historian Margaret Loftus Ranald puts it: “Garrick’s adaptation poisoned the Shakespearean well and The Taming of the Shrew entered the twentieth century as a wife-beating romp.”
In 1905, Shrew’s original folio returned once again to Broadway in a smash production starring E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe as the battling leads. Marlowe’s performance was “vigorous” according to the Evening Telegram, successfully playing to Katharine’s strength. Specifically, Marlowe chose to end the submission scene by rebelliously holding up two fingers to Petruchio as he exited, almost winking at the audience to insinuate that Katharine’s independence had not faltered.
Despite the 1905 production’s acclaim, the play did not receive another successful remount until the very production of Shrew which inspired the writers of Kiss Me Kate – when in 1935, married actors Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne played opposite each other in the Broadway hit. Their strong and violent performances showcased the farce of the piece, and presented Katharine with a strong-willed and feminist perspective. Burns Mantle of the New York News reported that Fontanne was not tamed “sweetly and softly, … but with a mental reservation that she still may have something say about this business of being tamed.” The Lunts’ were famously feuding spouses at the time and their performances were notable for their inability to separate their on- and off-stage battles.
The Lunts’ production of Shrew was so popular that it influenced subsequent productions for the next half-century. Lynne Fontanne’s performance and charisma inspired Cole Porter and the Spewacks to write one of the strongest leading ladies in Broadway history: Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate.
Kiss Me, Kate
The 5th Avenue Theatre’s current production of Kiss Me, Kate, a fresh remount of the Helen Hayes Award-winning production from the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, has certainly taken the material’s complications into account. As a part of The 5th Avenue’s mission to create socially relevant work, gender-equity has been a central theme ever since our first rehearsal as a company – and I can only imagine the discussions that began weeks in advance. The research I had completed in weeks prior to rehearsals was certainly eye-opening, though it could not have completely prepared me for the journey I was about to take with company.
Our director Alan Paul opened the conversation on the first day, explaining that “We are planning to rethink some aspects of the production to create something we can all be proud of” – Immediately creating an inclusive dialogue that continued up until opening night. The guiding voice of Paul’s staging has been that “Men and women have not been able to peacefully coexist for centuries – the play was written almost 400 years ago and still the truth of conflict and love is where the heart of the story lies.” After playing with countless ideas to invert some of the material, Paul said to the cast at a final rehearsal: “I hope our production presents the story of two conflicting lovers coming together as equals.”
Having the opportunity to be a part of this production was tremendous, as it was the first time that I have been involved with a project so open to discussion and reinvention. Coming into this process I was concerned about mounting such a controversial piece in the time of the #MeToo movement, however this company has proven every step of the way to be willing and capable of redefining the piece. In addition, the reinvention that our company has sought to produce drastically shifted my perception of Golden Age musicals. Before this experience, I often dismissed Golden Age shows as irrelevant works filled with problematic themes. Though after being part of the company of Kiss Me, Kate – and getting to work with such a passionate group of people – I have grown to consider these shows with greater value. In fact, Kiss Me, Kate has become one of my favorite shows! I could not be more thankful to have been a part of such an amazing production and walk away with a new sense of the possibilities of art – for if this team could so elegantly turn this problematic musical on its head, I don’t know what isn’t possible.
As music director Joel Fram so eloquently put in the rehearsal room, “It is something truly beautiful to take a piece of art outside the realm of what it may have been originally intended to be through subtlety and precision.” That beauty has certainly been realized.