Committing to Gender-reversed Casting

We’re now almost two weeks into the rehearsal process of The Tempest. Slowly but surely we’re making our way through the whole play, focusing on the different groups that arrive and interact on the island. We’ve established a strong bond between Prospero and the supernatural being of Ariel. The nobles, as we’ve started to call them, including the king Alonso with his brother Sebastian, his advisor Gonzalo and follower Adrian, as well as Duke Antonio. This group appears always together in the play and have a curious dynamic, as Antonio and Sebastian constantly try to undermine the pursuit of hope by Gonzalo. Then we rehearsed some heartwarming scenes between Miranda and Ferdinand. It’s astounding to hear Miranda discover the beauty of mankind in her very sincere and truthful way. Finally, the most laughs we’ve had in rehearsals so far has been with the hilarious trio of the drunken butler Stephano, the jester Trinculo and the creature of the island, half-human half-something else, called Caliban. The opposing character personalities in these scenes alone are funny. Caliban’s rage and need for revenge are countered by the drunken Stephano and Trinculo, that every observer understands that any plans forged by these are doomed to fail. But as always it’s wonderfully entertaining to observe their attempts.
The only new approach we’ve taken with this production is the gender-reversed casting. As it turns out, it’s the first production ever to fully commit to gender-reversed casting, meaning that all roles will be played by the opposite sex. So, if you come to see this production, you’re in for a treat of a world premiere. In a way, you would have expected to trigger a lot of discussions during rehearsals about the casting. But after our first set of ground rules to portray the characters as truthfully and best as we can, our focus in rehearsals has been to tell the story of The Tempest as clearly as possible. We forget how often women are cast to play men’s roles nowadays, so the casting sounds way more outlandish than it is, at least for the women it is just another male role. Even our male actor has acted in women’s roles before.
The most important lesson to learn from the gender-swap is that the acting becomes about the character and what part they play in the story, rather than about gender. Just as in real life, we all can play the same part but we all bring our very own and distinguishable personality to it. And what a joy it is to see that in rehearsals.

The Mad Ones

In the summer of 1995, I found myself in my first production of The Taming of the Shrew. Fifteen years old, playing Lucentio, and in way over my head, I was exploring this language for the first time. I was struck by how seamlessly the subplot was woven into the fabric of the story, and how even the simplest stock characters had intricately drawn backstories buried ingeniously in the text. The production was straightforward, simplistic in nature and a little barbaric in its treatment of Katherine. Even at a young age, I knew we had swung heartily and missed.

There seemed to me to be much more happening than the tyrannical oppression of an intelligent, independent woman, and something far greater at stake than a man’s comfort and dominance.

Katherine, the “shrew” of the title, is a bold and misunderstood woman surrounded by a Paduan society that values only wealth, position, and the societal rules that govern it. Katherine is the intellectual and moral superior to every inhabitant of this town that we meet, and as she rejects the hypocrites and fools she is surrounded by, she is pushed to fringes of her own home. She is rejected by suitor after suitor, and just as 16th-century spinsterhood is threatening to marginalize her further, we meet Petruchio. A man in mourning, mentioning the recent death of his father three separate times, he is a fortune seeker who, strangely, doesn’t care about the trappings of wealth; someone who will play by this society’s rules, only to upend them completely. When the two meet, sparks fly, wits duel, and hormones go into overdrive.

Theirs is a seduction of the mind, not the body, and it begins at first sight.

Nearly all relationships in this play are transactional in nature, and Katherine and Petruchio are no exception. Katherine’s family strikes a bargain with Petruchio to be rid of the constant in-house challenge that is Katherine, and Petruchio inherits a handsome dowry for his trouble. Instead of trying to understand Katherine’s struggles and actually communicate with her, her family is quite eager to hire someone else to do it for them and rid the house of her. When the wedding day arrives, Petruchio attends, but systematically rejects every social expectation the Paduans have for him and his wife. He spurns their traditions, facades, and hypocrisies and, in taking Katherine to their home to start a new life together, begins his odd courtship.

The “taming” of Katherine in the play’s final two acts is often depicted as abject brutality, a misogynistic terror and a living nightmare for everyone in the house.

While it can be troublesome behavior for a contemporary audience to witness, it’s hardly malevolent. Misguided as his methods are, they are earnest attempts to bring the couple closer together while going through a shared experience. Hunger, sleeplessness, and the absence of finery and affectation are what Petruchio, this young veteran, knows. The closest relationships of his past were forged suffering on the front lines of battle and not in a velvet-draped drawing room. Petruchio’s methods, callous and ham-fisted, are always in pursuit of bringing them closer. While Katherine and Petruchio learn to speak with a common voice, and, through pain, learn to see their world in a new way, they also discover how to subvert it. By the end of the play, Katherine speaks and is heard for the first time by the very people who were so eager to buy, sell, and barter her and her sister away.

Kate and Petruchio are, in the end, the only free and independent characters in their world, and they learn that the only way to truly challenge the system in place is from within.

Petruchio is not an example to follow or a hero, but a problematic and challenging partner for Katherine. He forces us to imagine what may have become of Katherine had she been left with a family so willing to ignore and treat her as a piece of currency. Katherine and Petruchio are both called “mad” many times throughout the play by other characters in their world. Shakespeare boldly challenges his audience and questions society’s treatment of women in The Taming of the Shrew, leaving us to ask ourselves who the mad ones truly are.

–Jesse James Kamps, Director of The Taming of the Shrew