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How director Shana Cooper aims to tame Shakespeare’s controversial ‘Shrew’ with radical vulnerability

James Udom and Deborah Ann Woll star in the Old Globe's "The Taming of the Shrew."
James Udom and Deborah Ann Woll star as Petruchio and Kate in the Old Globe’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
( Jim Cox )

The outdoor production opens the Old Globe’s 2022 Summer Shakespeare Festival

Ever since the Harvey Weinstein-#MeToo firestorm erupted in 2017, William Shakespeare’s early comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” has been mostly resigned to the theatrical dustbin by many theaters because of its misogynistic title and plot.

But the rising tide of female solidarity in recent years has only made stage director Shana Cooper more intrigued with the controversial play. Her take on what she sees as one of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood plays opens the Old Globe’s 2022 Summer Shakespeare Festival this weekend. The fest’s second production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” runs July 31 through Sept. 4.

Shana Cooper, director of "The Taming of the Shrew" at The Old Globe.
(Jenny Baker)

Cooper earned national acclaim for her 2018 production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, where she conceived the play’s unhappily betrothed couple Petruchio and Kate not as combatants fighting each other but as radical souls who, together, are battling the patriarchy and arranged marriage. Cooper also changed a handful of pronouns in the script from “she” to “all people” so that it’s not just women who should change to accommodate their partner’s desires.

Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein saw the 2018 staging and was so astonished by Cooper’s vision that he hired her to re-create it on a much larger scale at the Globe in 2020. The pandemic has delayed the production until now. Edelstein said he thinks San Diego audiences will love Cooper’s “fresh, modern and wildly energetic” take on the 1590-era comedy.

“She takes the play very seriously,” Edelstein said of Cooper, “even as she mines new levels of romance and laughter in its complex views of gender, power and love.”

The Globe production, with a cast of 20 and elaborate new costumes and scenery, stars James Udom as the fortune-hunting suitor Petruchio and Deborah Ann Woll as Kate, a wealthy man’s temperamental older daughter who must, by tradition, marry before her sweet younger sister, Bianca, is allowed to wed. But the brainy and independent Kate doesn’t want a husband and the unlikely couple match wits and fists all the way to the altar.

Cooper talked about Shakespeare and her vision for the play in a recent interview.

Q: You have a long résumé directing William Shakespeare’s works around the country. Why do you love his plays?

A: Shakespeare has been a lifelong love for me. I grew up in Ashland, Ore., where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is. I saw my first play when I was 5 or 6 and really fell in love with it. I felt invited to the party in a way that instilled an experimental belief that Shakespeare is for everyone. I believed these stories could reach people, including me, at that young age. I knew I didn’t understand what was being said, but I understood the story on a visceral level.

Q: How do you make Shakespeare’s plays accessible to all?

A: My hope is that we can reach everyone in the audience, regardless of how certain kinds of storytelling might speak to different people differently. I approach the plays in both a deeply textual way and also a viscerally physical way. When the muscular physicality and the language are combined, it can give access to the greatest number of people. This is a particularly physical play and the text is really something I love working on.

Q: Had you directed “The Taming of the Shrew” before 2018?

A: Yes, I came back to it. The first time was in 2011 with the California Shakespeare Theatre. Every time I direct this play, it’s a very different experience because it’s a political lightning rod. Depending on the moment in time you’re working on it, all sorts of different challenges arise. That’s the reason I never get sick of it. It feels like a different play whenever I come back to it.

Q: Were you hired to direct the 2018 production in Hudson Valley before the Weinstein scandal happened?

A: After everything went down with Weinstein, Hudson Valley asked me ‘Can we do this play right now?’ and I said: ‘I think we have to do this play right now. I believe the play to be a satire about the absurdity and danger of the patriarchy.

A sketch of bridesmaid dress by costume designer Asta Hostetter for "The Taming of the Shrew."
A sketch of bridesmaid dresses by costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter for the Old Globe’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
(The Old Globe)

Q: Can you explain your interpretation?

A: I believe in the play as written. Given there are stylistic differences in the play — the world of the clowns and patriarchal society are one style and Kate and Petruchio’s love story is another style — the collision of those two suggests the writer is satirizing something. In this case, it’s the toxic patriarchy. He’s suggesting that if you operate outside the status quo and in partnership — even if it’s messy — you might find something miraculous on the other side.

Q: Some of the things Petruchio says to Katherine are so cruel that it’s hard to imagine she could forgive him.

A: There are places where Petruchio is playing a game or doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to say the thing he needs, or he asks for it and Kate isn’t willing to give it at that moment. That feels true to me — the challenges of language and compromise. The process of getting there is full of mistakes and failure, but it gives me hope that we don’t give up and we just keep fighting and we do it together. The miracle is there’s a million reasons to give up along the way but they don’t and they see hope and possibility and a different way of living and loving together that they’ve never seen before with anyone else.

A costume sketch by Ásta Bennie Hostetter for the Old Globe's "The Taming of the Shrew."
A costume sketch by Ásta Bennie Hostetter for Hortensio, Petruchio’s best friend in the Old Globe production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
(The Old Globe)

Q: Kate’s final speech of seeming subservience feels so out of date.

A: When Kate breaks through in the final speech, it’s a pretty radical argument for the power of vulnerability and abandoning yourself to another person in a relationship. The reason why it’s so hard for us to hear it is that she’s redefining power. Vulnerability can be connected to power. We are still as a society coming to terms with how do we expand the idea of what it is to be powerful and allow that to include authenticity and love. The play ends with them going off to start a life together. They’ve won the game and they’re leaving all of the miserable people behind to realize they’ve married the wrong person.

Q: Any last thoughts you’d like to share with our readers about the play?

A: I invite people to come and listen with open ears and an open mind. One of the greatest challenges I know audiences feel is the baggage of all your past experiences with this play. There’s a fine line between whether it’s a misogynistic play or a play about misogyny. If we can listen anew, my hope is that it will become possible to see aspects of our own world and be able to laugh at ourselves and enjoy.

‘The Taming of the Shrew’

When: Opens Sunday and runs through July 10. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623

Online: theoldglobe.org

Shana Cooper photographed in 2010 at the Princess Grace Awards Gala in New York City.
(Matthew Peyton)


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