Shrews, Torture, and Medieval Politics
The Taming of the Shrew
Seattle Shakespeare Company at Center House Theatre
Through June 19.
It pains me to say it, because I see so few driven, aesthetically uniﬁed productions of plays by Shakespeare, but this neat little Taming of the Shrew is rotted at its core. Look, we all know the play is bitterly misogynist. There isn't even a "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech to partially recuperate the Bard from the judgmental fury of our enlightened age. This is the same poet, after all, who compulsively compares women's genitalia to hell and nothing, who always does his best to make heterosexual sex sound like wallowing in a cesspool. No one is ever going to make The Taming of the Shrew into a nice play.
And it's really not going to happen with the help of men's-movement kook Robert Bly. Seattle Shakespeare Company is reviving its successful (and, bafﬂingly, celebrated) 2003 production of the play, in which director Stephanie Shine recasts the entire sexist torture session as a moralistic little ceremony that helps boys learn to be men. Both Kate and Bianca are portrayed by guys (George Mount and Beethoven Oden), as are all the other characters. In place of the Christopher Sly preamble, there's a stamping, hooting framing device in which the actors gather their testosterone. Kate's ﬁnal capitulation is jumbled and re- written (midway through, she abandons feminine pronouns, strips off her dress to reveal Stanley Kowalski drag, and says, "I am ashamed that we men are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace"). And at curtain call, we hear the Proclaimers' altruistic, buddy-buddy hit "I Would Walk 500 Miles." Aw, how sweet! Now, apparently, the man-boy has discovered it isn't cool to starve, beat, or deprive his wife of sleep.
And by the way, it doesn't help that the closing speech now sounds like an exhortation to return to the highly problematic tradition of courtly love. Or that Mount and Michael Patten (as Petruchio), who both handle the language competently, have so little chemistry that they seem to have been cast with the conscious intention to keep the gay factor to a minimum.
The Taming of the Shrew is not an algebra problem to be solved. Its outrageous, offensive excess always spills over the edges of the simple devices meant to contain and excuse it. You'll leave this production unsettled and ashamed-not of Shakespeare or the society that gave rise to his fucked-up genius, but of Seattle Shakespeare Company's pathetic attempts to patch over his sins. You won't remember the production's ﬂow, or the ﬁne comic performance by Timothy Hornor as the servant Grumio. (You may remember the weirdly abject, Benito Cereno-esque performance of Chris Laxamana as Biondello: That's a fascinating, disturbing demonstration of how to identify and magnify Shakespeare's oblique prejudice.) You will certainly remember complacency and glibness. This show tames nothing but the audience's critical faculties. ANNIE WAGNER
Back of the Throat
Through June 18.
Back of the Throat, this year's winner of Theater Schmeater's Northwest Playwright Competition, details the back-and-forth between Khaled, an Arab-American, and two federal ofﬁcers who are investigating him. In the opening moments, there's a delicious sense of concealed menace, but the play soon shrilly escalates to out-and-out torture.
Khaled (a spirited performance from Alex Samuels) hits different volumes of the same one note, from compliant protest to anger to protesting howls of pain. Kate Czajkowski plays three different characters (victimized librarian, shrewish ex-girlfriend, and stripper-a trifecta of feminine clichés) with gusto. The set design is a minor miracle, turning Schmeater's tiny space into a twentysomething man's studio apartment, complete with a futon stashed with porn.
In short, everything onstage works exceptionally well. But the script isn't nimble enough to avoid tongue-clucking preachiness, and the dead-serious direction exacerbates the situation. Tangential moments-the agents' insistence that Khaled ﬁll out a customer satisfaction survey grading their "service," and other rare, daffy laughs-charm in a way that polemics cannot, but then the characters are quickly tucked back behind their politics, inscrutably outraged and diametrically opposed. PAUL CONSTANT
Arthur: The Hunt
Through June 18.
Jeff Berryman's ambitions are not small: Arthur: The Hunt is only the second of the playwright's seven-play cycle about King Arthur. Unfortunately, no one's life-not even Arthur's-has seven distinct, dramatically effective stories in it, and the richest events of the legend come in Arthur's adulthood. Berryman tries to circumvent this by putting Arthur's half-sister Morgan (played with gumption by Sarah Lamb) at the core of this play's plot. He turns her from a scheming witch to a tragic heroine, which is not a bad idea. More questionably, he gives this semi-mythical world a semi-realistic makeover, rife with brutal warlords, barbarian queens, and religious conﬂicts--which could be ﬁne if it served the action.
Unfortunately, at least half of the play consists of long expository scenes about what has been or what's to come, suffocating the story at hand. This talkiness is made worse by the Scots-Welsh hybrid accents that Taproot Theatre has invented, which hamper the actors and test the audience. This could have been a touching romance screwed over by fate (and some unfortunate connections of birth); instead, it's a stew of bloated intrigue with an enjoyable garnish of star-crossed love. Here's hoping the next ﬁve plays have more drama and less fifth-century political discourse. BRET FETZER