“I see a woman may be made a fool, / If she had not a spirit to resist.” These words silenced the actors and audience members like a gunshot. There was a realization that this small piece of dialogue from Shakespeare’s five-act comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew,” served as the thesis statement for this particular production and as the theatre company’s response to the actions of women in society today.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s current staging of “The Shrew” is deceitful. As the audience quickly learned within the first five minutes, it is a play within a play. Set in Chicago on Aug. 18, 1920 (mere moments before the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were granted the right to vote), a small but mighty women’s club is practicing their production of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Initially, the theatre troupe is divided by their opinions of the Amendment. While some of the society members desperately long for an equal right to vote, others are more than content in their roles as submissive, lesser wives.
However, as the women into the Shakespearean classic, often interrupting their own performance to comment on the play’s relevance to 1920s American culture, they learn a lesson opposite of that proposed by the British playwright: Women are not animals in need of taming.
The production was a delightful and inventive interpretation of Shakespeare. The additional dialogue from the women’s club was outrageously witty, but stung the contemporary audience. Ron West, writer of these suffragette scenes, consistently made connections between the 1920s time period and the present day.
These connections were always humorous but poignantly commented on the nation’s inability to make significant strides toward equality. For example, in one of the last moments of the play, one of the jazz era suffragettes ironically celebrates, “The right to vote today, equal pay tomorrow!”
Every aspect of the performance, from the work of the designers to the work of the actors, was beautifully assembled to support the vision of director Barbara Gaines. In alignment of her concept, the humor was diverted away from its original intentions.
Shakespearean jokes about the “foolishness” of women and their “necessary” abuse was downplayed. Instead, the complete cast of female actors focused their comedic abilities on portraying their male characters as overtly perverted, dimwitted, and clownish.
The direction of Gaines successfully destroyed the show’s 16th century values and put “The Shrew” to shame.
While I found the play to be an astonishing performance of protest theatre, some members of the audience did not share my enthusiasm. During intermission, several senior audience members expressed a disliking for the director’s interpretation.
Their complaints ranged from it being boring to it being excessively crude. The woman seated next to me did not stay for the second act. When the play ended, as the actors took their bows, the countless hours of effort, dedication, and passion to make this remarkable piece of art earned standing ovations from a dismal amount of theatregoers.
At this particular performance, the show was only well-received by younger, more progressive minds.
As I witnessed, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is not for everybody. Despite the play’s high production value and my glowing support for this interpretation, your enjoyment of the show is dependent on your perspective.
While I cannot guarantee a fun night out at the theatre, I promise you will get your money’s worth if you keep an open mind. The creative team of thespians provide countless valuable lessons about the lives of women past and present.
They have successfully transformed Shakespeare’s misogynistic comedy into a celebration of feminism, which is sure to entertain reformist thinkers and challenge patriarchal supporters.
“The Taming of the Shrew” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier performs until Nov. 12. Discount tickets are available online for select dates and times.