The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 30.120 Friday, 15 March 2019
Date: March 15, 2019 at 8:45:46 AM EDT
Subject: Kiss Me, Kate Review
Taming of the Testosterone
By Jesse Green
March 14, 2019
They may have lived in unenlightened times, but the men and women behind “Kiss Me, Kate” still knew plenty about the compromises of marriage.
Take Cole Porter, who wrote the 1948 musical’s peerlessly witty songs. Though gay, he wived it wealthily (and happily) with the socialite Linda Lee Thomas.
Not so blithe were his book writers: Bella Spewack was pressured to share credit with Samuel Spewack, her estranged husband, even though she did most of the work.
You could even count Lilli and Fred, the show’s lead characters: flamboyant exes who star as Katharine and Petruchio in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” They are named for the Lunts, Lynn and Alfred, married actors who made Broadway meals of the same Shakespearean roles, catfighting onstage and off.
And let’s not forget Shakespeare himself. In one of the world’s great exit lines he willed his wife his second-best bed.
I raise all this marital prehistory not to excuse the elements of the original “Kiss Me, Kate” that rankle our sensibilities today — its gender stereotypes and wife-slapping argument for womanly submission — but to suggest how the latest Broadway revival, which opened on Thursday in a production starring the sublime Kelli O’Hara, could be so enjoyable anyway.
Turns out, the authors’ take on marriage is more complex and insightful than we may recall. And where they did wander into material now rightly seen as toxic, a few changes in emphasis and one major revision allow us to enjoy it in a new light, as a two-way “taming,” distorted not by malice but through the mocking filter of farce.
It helps to recall that good farce is always knockabout, regardless of gender; it’s a pleasure to roar at suffering that is big and fake and somebody else’s. “Kiss Me, Kate” is cleverly constructed to provide that pleasure squared. In the outer, backstage story, Lilli (Ms. O’Hara) and Fred (Will Chase) clearly belong together, if only they could stop fighting long enough to notice. In the inner, onstage story, Kate and Petruchio must discover love by discovering themselves, when their psychological armor is at last yanked off them.
The two stories quickly merge, Lilli’s fury over a perceived slight by Fred feeding her performance of Kate’s fury when manhandled by Petruchio. Though even Shakespeare let her fight back, with words and elbows, the serious glee with which Ms. O’Hara pummels Mr. Chase — you could call the show “Kick Me, Kate” — goes a long way toward defanging the usual impression of violence from only the other direction. When Lilli argues that she’s just a “realistic actress,” we can’t fault Fred for responding, “You’re a thug!”
What she isn’t, in Ms. O’Hara’s interpretation, is a punching bag or a flirt. Her Lilli, more refined and less broadly comic than some, is a haughty diva who must learn humility, not because she’s a woman but because she’s too proud. How she got that way is never really explained, any more than the source of Kate’s “irksome, brawling” nature is in Shakespeare. But we see the answer in Ms. O’Hara’s cautious eyes, always on the lookout for adoration or mistreatment — and, men being what they are, often finding both.
We also hear the contradiction in her delicious renditions of the Porter songs, so that a merry operetta spoof like “Wunderbar” hints at ambivalence, and a formal beguine like “So in Love,” sung so gorgeously it almost melts the theater, touches a kind of terror. Even her scalding take on Kate’s “I Hate Men” (“he may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie”) is subtly shaded to demonstrate that hate is only part of the problem.
[ . . . ]
But the revisions made for the current production are more sensitively achieved. In the simplest, a framing device invoking the ghostliness of the empty stage establishes the show as a theatrical throwback. The biggest comes at the end, when the lyrics to Kate’s song “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” which Porter largely lifted from Shakespeare, get a heavy reworking. (Amanda Green is credited with “additional material.”) Now it’s “people” who are so simple, and not just women but all lovers who must learn subservience.
Purists may squawk — though similar changes have long since shown up in feminist productions of “The Taming of the Shrew.” For me, the adjustments, especially Ms. Green’s and Ms. O’Hara’s, are completely successful. They not only reorient the story as a warning to all sexes, but also provide a workaround for a musical that our cancel culture seemed ready to throw on the bonfire of the inanities.
How nice to find “Kiss Me, Kate” rescued from that fate: still speaking to us — or better yet, singing — from the not so buried past.