Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lots of Reasons to See Universe

Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck gives Shakespeare's Universe 3 stars:

"There is much to like, but much more to admire, about director Peter Hinton's unwieldy The Taming of the Shrew currently playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It drips with Hinton's research into the sexual politics of the Elizabethan era - some might say drowns in it.

"If you were a fan of all that contextualization, however, you'll love Shakespeare's Universe (Her Infinite Variety), a Shrew spin-off of sorts written and directed by Hinton. Presented on a circular outdoor stage a stone's throw from the Festival Theatre, this play/lecture presents the result of Hinton's gender study without any pesky plot or characters getting in the way.

"Using six actors - four women, two men - Hinton romps through various pamphlets, poems and plays written by the Bard and his contemporaries pondering the place of women in Elizabethan England. He is particularly fascinated by the paradoxes of the period: Good Queen Bess was ruler of the land, but her fellow women had no legal rights; Shakespeare was writing complex, humanist female characters, which were then played by boys.

"Shakespeare's Universe includes snippets of soliloquies from Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. (The subtitle comes form the latter's description of the Queen of Egypt: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.') Cast members conclude these moments by signing Shakespeare's name in the summer air, saying aloud as they write it: 'William Shakespeare.' Aside from being a very mockable gesture - on the car ride home, a friend and I punctuated our best bits of conversation by signing our names in the air - it seems a mistake to ascribe the opinions of Shakespeare's characters to Willy S. himself. Part of what makes him such a great playwright is that it is very difficult to pigeonhole his personal politics.

"It's the 'universe' part of this presentation that is much more interesting - extracts from rarely staged Elizabethan and Jacobean plays such as The Two Angry Women of Abingdon by Henry Porter and The Witch of Edmonton by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford (in which Karen Robinson takes on the title role and Matthew MacFadzean has an excellent turn as a hellhound).

"We get a peek, as well, at John Fletcher's The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. In this sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine has died and Petruchio remarries a woman named Maria. Perhaps inspired by Aristophanes's Lysistrata, Maria leads a group of women in abstaining from sex until their husbands are tamed. (How intriguing to see that Shakespeare's play was provoking feminist response even during his time.) The actors present a wry, 10-second summary of the two tamings: Kate places her hand under Petruchio's foot, then Petruchio places his hand under Maria's.

"Particularly well suited for a sunny, outdoor stage is Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West, in which Laura Condlin plays Bess Bridges - a proto-Buffy the Vampire Slayer whose name elicits cheers from other women in the cast. This swashbuckling sister disguises herself as a man to confront bullies who cause trouble at her tavern. (And later, in a part not staged here, leads a group of privateers in attacks on Turkish vessels.) Over all, the writings in Shakespeare's Universe - many of them by women, including poet Aemilia Lanyer, polemicist Moderata Fonte, and Elizabeth I herself - paint a complex portrait of Elizabethan women.

"Yet Hinton does not shy away from the more perverse and oppressive aspects of the age. He introduces a torture device called the brank, a monstrous metal mask with a spiked tongue immobilizer that a shrewish woman would wear as a punishment paraded. The full horror of this is chillingly evoked as the play's four female actors place upside-down chairs on top of their heads and describe the funnel that would be put down their throat and the unspeakable liquids that would be poured in.

"At just $10, Shakespeare's Universe is worth a peek between shows if it's a sunny afternoon. Whether this history lesson actually helps us better understand the Bard's female characters, however, is arguable. Certainly Hinton's production of The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the pitfalls of getting too bogged down in period detail. It's the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare's women than make them of enduring interest, as we have seen in this year's Generation Y Juliet and Edwardian Ophelia."

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