In the Company of Men
In 1660, Sir Edward Hyde advised the newly restored King Charles II that "women on the stage beget disquiet" and that he shouldn't allow them to perform. Charles didn't heed that advice; English-speaking stages have had actresses ever since. But men on stage are quite capable of begetting their own disquiet. Witness the all-male productions of Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night currently running at BAM. In the former, a plastered Petruchio arrives for his wedding attired solely in fringed jacket, cowboy boots, thong underwear, and a Stetson hat, into which he proceeds to urinate. Disquietingand hilarious.
The Propeller Company, led by director Edward Hall, has previously graced BAM with well-received productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale. They now return with this comedy diptych. As in Shakespeare's day, males play the female roles, though Propeller casts men rather than boys. While those men are afforded some make-up, they don't hold with the Elizabethan practice of wigs, farthingales, and corsets that might have transformed the male figure into a female one. Yes, the men wear dressesoften most unflattering onesbut men they remain.
At worst (see Twelfth Night), this casting and costuming seem merely novel, frills adorning a pleasant if unexceptional production. (It's the third Twelfth Night at BAM in four years and the second this season.) But at its best, as in Shrew, the homosocial universe of the Propeller production offers commentary on and criticism of the text itself, laying bare its assumptions regarding sex and gender, the cruelty toward women it seems to unthinkingly endorse.
For Shrew, Edward Hall and co-adapter Roger Warren have relied not only on the 1623 Folio text, but also on a 1594 curiosity titled The Taming of a Shrew, a similar play in which the marginal character Christopher Sly has a more active and sustained presence. In Propeller's production Sly (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) eventually assumes the role of Petruchio. Bruce-Lockhart plays Petruchio as strutting, preening, vulgardevoid of taste or empathy. At first this paramour seems as much as quarrelsome Kate (Simon Scardifield) deserves. But as the taming itself begins, the pleasure curdles and laughs stick in the throat. Hall's production gradually unveils the viciousness of Petruchio's treatmentindeed, you might call it torture. The audience moves from siding with him to despising him, even as the other male characters like sweet Lucentio and sound Hortensio endorse his views. By casting actors of all one sex, Hall underscores the malice and absurdity in treating women in such a way, when nothing distinguishes them save a few bits of cloth. When Petruchio brays, "Come on, and kiss me, Kate!" you half wish she'd bite his lips off. Instead, the conquered Kate quietly obliges.
Comparisons, as a Much Adoeronce noted, are odorous. The current production of As You Like It might have smelled sweeter were it not judged against Propeller's comedies. It marks the inaugural endeavor of Poor Tom Productions, a New York all-male Shakespeare company. Under director Moritz von Stuelpnagel's ministrations the acting isn't unskilled, but neither is it inspired. Here, the men in women's rolesagain unwiggeddon't do much to illuminate the text, though they do provoke the odd giggle. Neither actors nor director seem to delight much in the verse. The best bits are extratextual moments: a riotous wrestling scene and a jolly dance that concludes the play. Poor Tom has assembled an able companyand some very lively designersbut they may wish to rethink their Shakespeare focus.
So might Ryan J-W Smith. Women and wigs do appear onstage in his Sweet Love Adieu, but to no great effect. Smith's Elizabethan pastiche is most pleased with itself, seeming not to understand that the ability to write lines in iambic pentameter does not another Shakespeare make. Smith and director Don Harvey subject the audience to more than two hours of verse, often in rhymed couplets, as young poet Will and his beloved Anne attempt to wed and bed each other. But this is less Shakespeare in Love than Shakespeare in Vain. Smith wrote the piece while an undergrad at Trinity College, perhaps explaining its sophomoric quality. It's sweet natured, surely, but lacking structure, character, or notable language. However, Smith does muster some sage counsel: In Sweet Love's final lines, the chorus says, "I entreat thee be merry, let's go have a drink."
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