You wouldn’t normally think of Richard III in terms of what it says about the place of women in Yorkist England. But then, an odd idea or two is bound to crop up when you see nearly seven hours of Shakespeare within a 24-hour span.
It helps, of course, if that murderously charming Plantagenet is played by a woman. And if, in a three-show repertory like the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ “Over the Hump” tour, the same actress is cast as Kate, the titular termagant in The Taming of the Shrew, and as Juliet, the all-but-invisible pregnancy “victim” in Measure for Measure.
Not that Ralph Alan Cohen, the Shenandoah troupe’s executive director and proselytizer of its stripped-down style, has come up with an aggressively re-imagined Richard like the one I proposed, only half-jokingly, to a friend when I heard the part was to be cross-cast: A sleek, stylish politico, possibly a lesbian, literally backstabbing her way to the topnot out of bitterness over a physical deformity, but because as a smart sexual outsider in a man’s world, she’d be even less likely than a hunchback to get her due.
Far from it, in fact: Kate Norris, playing the scheming hunchback in male drag, is sure enough of her performance that she disappears almost entirely into the part, and Cohen’s reading is a straightforward period affair that counts on the play’s relentless momentum for excitement and leaves symbolism to the powerfully ritualistic languagebeautifully served by his cast despite SSE’s typically rapid-fire rhythmsof the play’s extended laments, curses, and courtly overtures.
But if only because of the connections you’ll draw between Juliet’s utter helplessness, Kate’s fettered, sublimated power, and the dynastic marriage that helps seal Richard’s doom on Bosworth Field, you’ll find yourself looking more closely at the female characters in Richard and wondering about their curious impotence. No fewer than four queens populate this intricately plotted ripsnorter of a political drama, after all, and the most puissant among them is barely more than a pawn in a man’s ruthless game. The widowed Queen Elizabeth (consistently sensitive Heather Peak) manages to help ensure Richard’s downfall by marrying her daughter off to his primary challenger, but surely that’s no more a triumph than that of Kate.
Kate? Who, in allowing herself to be tamed, plays the cards she’s been dealt to win the hand of the husband she’s secretly wanted? That’s the mildly tortured interpretation that lets some scholars (including Cohen and co-director Peggy O’Brien, apparently) find a feeble kind of feminism in Taming of the Shrew. But for all the relative sensitivity Shakespeare brings to the subjectthe rebellious wives of his day were generally disciplined physically, not psychologicallyit’s still pretty clear he didn’t see the battle of the sexes as an equal one.
So yes, the Kate who delivers that submissive, honor-your-lord-and-master speech at the end of this staging of the skirmish is perhaps a degree more liberated than the one my early-’70s edition of The Riverside Shakespeare sees, rather condescendingly, as “a woman who has discovered and come to terms with her own genuine nature” (said nature being one Petruchio had to show her, of course).
But a truly indomitable Kate is an idea more hinted atin Jessica Meyer’s insouciant portrayal of a manipulative, petulant Bianca, for instancethan fully conceived, and while Norris’s performance is confident and entertaining, it never gets below the surface. Neither does Carl Martin as Petruchio, who seems merely cleverly perverse rather than intelligently subversive. And if Cohen and O’Brien really meant to underline the parallels between Kate and the drunkard who “exploits” social norms to his own ends in the play’s framing device, they might have found a way to bring him back onstage toward the end. This Shrew is undeniably funny (Jonathan Church is particularly so in three roles), but it’s not much more thoughtful than light farce.
Sandwiched between Shrew and Richard, Measure for Measure is neither comedy nor tragic drama, but a kind of twisty expedition into murky ethical terrain. Meyer, all big brown eyes and tremulous dignity, is the one woman who gets things done in this repertory, and even she has to be shown how by a Machiavellian who eventually claims her as his bride.
Still, her Isabellaa novice nun caught in a moral quandary between two flawed but essentially decent mencombines Kate’s determination and the outrage of one of Richard’s weeping queens, and she relies on both to help set the situation right. (A thought: Are Isabella’s prayers any more effective than the impressive curses Meyer spits as Richard’s mother, or do the temporal forces alone hold sway in both plays?)
Meyer’s mix of steel and softness in Measure is the best thing about Jim Warren’s staging, which can’t seem to find an easy balance between serious and silly. The cast, for some reason, strains to find comedy in the more serious scenes, when there are plenty of low jokes written in. And those jokes certainly don’t go unexploited: Norris (yes, again) sports sheriff’s stars on elbow pads as Elbow, Measure’s version of the language-mangling constable Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing, while Tim Gore (an archbishop in Richard) is a wry scream in sapphire satin as the pimp Elbow arrests; and Scott Nath (a subtle Lucentio in Shrew) makes the trash-talking operator Lucio appealingly smarmy.
With that unexceptional Shrew, Measure for Measure makes two not especially inspired productions out of three meant to mark SSE’s 10th anniversary. But all the shows are as energetic and enjoyable as audiences have come to expect from the troupe, and Richard, lesbians or no, is a solid success. And heyeven the Royal Shakespeare Company missteps every now and then. Have you seen that Hamlet?CP