Shakespeare in Clark Park stages ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ and its rebuttal

Minou Pourshariati as Bianca leads the Actively Conscious Chorus through a protest song in 'The Tamer Tamed,' opening the second act of Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of 'The Taming!' set in West Philly circa 1990s. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

Minou Pourshariati as Bianca leads the Actively Conscious Chorus through a protest song in 'The Tamer Tamed,' opening the second act of Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of 'The Taming!' set in West Philly circa 1990s. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

This weekend, Shakespeare in Clark Park will stage its annual free outdoor performance of a Shakespeare play. This year it selected “The Taming of the Shrew,” a Shakespeare comedy packed with witty banter of sparring lovers.

“I think it’s Shakespeare’s funniest play,” said co-director Kathryn MacMillan. “Not all of Shakespeare’s comedies are legitimately comic. ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is a scream.”

Taming is also one of Shakespeare’s more problematic comedies for its portrayal of gender roles. Petruchio marries the headstrong Kate, then commences a campaign to break her spirit, sometimes using physical containment and psychological manipulation that can be read as abusive.

Ultimately, Petruchio succeeds in “taming” Kate when she agrees to proclaim a falsehood — that the sun is actually the moon — to attract his favor.

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“I’ve played Kate. I’ve seen it a few times. I’ve seen directors twist themselves into knots trying to wrestle with the end of the play and make it palatable to a contemporary audience,” said Kittson O’Neill, the artist director of Shakespeare in Clark Park. “I’m not sure it’s possible.”

O’Neill, who also said “Taming” is Shakespeare’s funniest comedy despite its problems, decided to pair “Taming” with another play of its era, “The Woman’s Prize (The Tamer Tamed),” circa 1610, by John Fletcher, a contemporary of Shakespeare. “Tamer Tamed” is an argument against “Taming of the Shrew,” set several years later when Kate has died and Petruchio is wooing a new wife, Maria, who does not relent to his dominance.

Shakespeare in Clark Park will perform a heavily truncated version of “Taming of the Shrew” as Act One, followed by “The Tamer Tamed” as Act Two.

Kira Player as Katherine faces off against Jo Vito Ramírez as Petruchio in ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ the first act of Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of ‘The Taming!’, set amid West Philly rowhomes circa 1960s. (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

“What I found interesting is even in Shakespeare’s time people were, like, ‘This isn’t a happy ending. I hate this ending.’” said O’Neill. “So 16 years later another play was produced that is basically: ‘Hey, your marriage has to be an agreement between two equals.”

As the first half of the SCP evening, “Taming of the Shrew” is set in the 1960s in West Philadelphia. MacMillan does not attempt to twist herself into knots to make its gendered roles more palatable to modern audiences. Instead, she faithfully plays up the wit and jokes and inherent problems of “Shrew” knowing that, in the end, she is setting up the rebuttal that follows.

“It’s been a fun challenge to make half a world, and let it end kind of broken,” she said.

MacMillan hands the second part of the evening to writer Charlotte Northeast and director Ang Bey, who adapted “Tamer Tamed” by setting it 30 years later.

In an effort to shape “The Taming!” into a representation of the neighborhood in which it’s being performed, Northeast and Bey held several community workshops in West Philadelphia, asking participants to engage in creative activities in order to draw out what they wanted to see on stage.

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“Being a West Philadelphian myself, born and raised in Southwest Philly, 67th [and] Woodland, I knew of Shakespeare and Clark Park but I really didn’t feel like it was for me,” said Bey. “I was a young Black girl at the time and Shakespeare was such a blockade. I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

One of the participants was Karen Smith, a drummer and West Philly resident (she has since moved to Germantown). She said the workshops emphasized the activism and community mobilization that are part of the neighborhood’s identity.

“People that live here organize a lot. There’s a lot of activism here,” she said, thinking particularly of the last two years since the demonstrations that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “The activism here is high, of all the sections of Philadelphia.”

Out of those workshops emerged the Actively Conscious Chorus, a group of West Philadelphia women who appear as a group onstage, acting as a traditional theatrical chorus to comment on the action. They first appear on stage carrying protest signs painted with lines from Shakespeare: “My Tongue Will Tell the Anger of My Heart,” and “I See a Woman May be Made a Fool If She Had Not the Spirit to Resist.”

They also have their own choreographed dance. Smith believes the chorus captures a West Philly vibe.

“There’s a ‘tude here in West Philadelphia,” she said. “I think they were able to capture the essence of that ‘tude.”

Ang Bey and Kathryn MacMillan, co-directors of Shakespeare in Clark Park’s ‘The Taming!,’ a mashup of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and John Fletcher’s ‘The Woman’s Prize (The Tamer Tamed).’ (Peter Crimmins / WHYY)

Bey directed the second half of “The Taming!” with the 1990s hip-hop style of TV shows from that era, like “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “In Living Color.” The costumes are old-school fashion throwbacks.

“That world of the 90s with big explosive colors, and lots of conversations about gender and patriarchy, specifically,” said Bey. “1994, when our show is set, is right on the brink of hip-hop coming into the mainstream.”

Mashing “Taming of the Shrew” with “The Tamer Tamed” is not an invention of Shakespeare in Clark Park. Other theater companies have done this in the past, but to O’Neill’s memory it has never been done in Philadelphia.

So why stage Taming of the Shrew at all?

“I think Taming of the Shrew is a really funny play. It’s got really good clowns. It has some really good jokes. Of Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s really one of the best,” said O’Neill. “It’s an explosion of gender issues, but that doesn’t have to be a gloomy manifesto. It can be a joyful dance break and a funny play with over-the-top clowns. Fighting the patriarchy doesn’t have to be dour.”

“The Taming!” will be performed nightly from July 27 – 31, for free on the southern side of Clark Park. There will be no provided seating; attendees are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs, blankets, food, and drink. In the event of inclement weather (weather rain or excessive heat) the play will be moved indoors at the Annenberg Center on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

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