Every morning during rehearsals for The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, director Phyllida Lloyd and movement director Ann Yee gave all the actors exercises to practice acting like men. They would walk, sit and throw balls to each other as men and as women for comparison. This enabled the all-female company (some play males and some play females) to develop rules about how to physicalize their male characters. For example, when Donna Lynne Champlin plays Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors, she stands with her weight distributed evenly on both feet and does not make elaborate hand gestures.
They also discussed what they noticed about the general tendencies of the opposite sex. “It’s amazing how much space men feel entitled to and how small women feel we need to be in order to just move through the earth. We get very tiny and they expand,” says LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Baptista, a father trying to marry off his difficult daughter, Katherina (Cush Jumbo) before his sweet, younger daughter, Bianca (Gayle Rankin) can wed. Such observations informed the physical expression of these characters. “Phyllida didn’t want us to change our voices. She didn’t want us trying to affect some male tone in our voice. It’s so amazing that now I listen to and I look at everybody in suits, in our male garb, and I really don’t identify them as women,” says Jackson, appearing in her first all-female company.
But it’s not enough to just cast women and put on a traditional production. As Jackson says, “You can put women in it, and it can just sit there.” In Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis’ program notes, he confesses why he never approached the show previously: “Because Shrew seemed to me to not only be about a misogynist world, but also asks us to celebrate the essential action of bringing a woman to heel, I never found a comfortable way to present it.”
The Taming of the Shrew can be hard to take as Petruchio (Janet McTeer) physically and emotionally abuses Katherina, and she gives a final controversial monologue about how wives should obey their husbands. “ It was going to be amazing to see how to pull off in 2016 a play that was so diametrically opposed to what we were teaching our girls,” says Jackson. Lloyd, without changing the text, put the play in a different context, using a beauty pageant as a framing device.
“We are all women, so it does kind of let the misogyny off the hook in a way,” says Champlin. “I think it allows you to laugh at the misogyny more freely than if it really was a man throwing Katherina over a table. If a man does that to a woman, it is just not funny and all of a sudden this comedy of The Taming of the Shrew, you have a drama real fast, but there’s almost this safety in a way of the women being so misogynistic because it allows the audience to see the comedy more clearly in 2016 because it’s safer. But on the other side, because we’re women, certain misogynistic moments are incredibly terrifying and upsetting, so I think it raises the stakes in many different ways.”
For Champlin, it was worth giving up her vacation from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to do this play, which she considers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (She read about the production on Playbill while wrapping the TV show and told her agent she had to audition.) She has grown especially fond of her character. “Hortensio is the most evolved dude up there. I think he’s a rough guy. I think he’s a thug, but he would never hit a woman. He gets clocked twice, and he never ever touches a woman back,” she says. Between this play and her female-focused TV show, she describes this part of her acting career as her feminist period. “I’m very pro-women’s rights, so it is quite thrilling to be in this feminist pocket of my career,” she says.
Jackson also loves being in this production and says that it’s great being a guy. “They wear comfortable shoes,” she says. “I love their shoes. My feet don’t hurt.”
Linda Buchwald is a New York-based arts journalist focusing on theatre and television. Follow her on Twitter @PataphysicalSci.