Shakespeare Dallas has a challenge ahead.
Its 2018 season opens June 6 with the The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew and running intermittently. Committed to a diverse repertoire, Shakespeare Dallas opted to perform The Taming of the Shrew — which deals with a politically charged topic that is at the forefront of our national conversation — and decided the show's director had to be a woman in order to handle the gender issues in the play.
Jenni Stewart, the company's associate artistic director, is in her 12th season at Shakespeare Dallas, but this is her first main stage directing job. She says the challenge in directing the show today lies in the behavior of the main characters.
"Kate’s behavior is shocking, and the tactics that Petruchio uses to tame her are shocking," Stewart says. "Both are heightened in our modern context."
Stewart says she is approaching the show first a comedy, then as a love story and lastly as an examination of the societal and political implications inherent in the story. Stewart has moved the action from Italy to the U.S. and set it in 1910 during the suffragette movement when women were fighting for the vote.
Stewart says setting the play in a period when women were fighting for enfranchisement allows the show to remain relevant but gives the audience a little distance from which to consider it. The audience has the opportunity to observe the "de jure" discrimination against women before being granted the vote as compared to the "de facto" discrimination that the #MeToo movement has revealed.
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The most disturbing part of the play for modern audiences comes in the speech at the end in which Kate pledges to be obedient to Petruchio. Stewart says she considered the multiple definitions of the word obedience and opted to "release it from all societal definitions and consider what else it can mean," choosing to highlight the obedience of Kate to the rules inherent in marriage rather than subservience to a man.
Stewart says that there have been tremendous changes to the climate in the theater community regarding sexual harassment, including the creation of #NotinMyHouse. Shakespeare Dallas has scrutinized all of its policies, set in place a strong chain of command for complaints and adopted standards of behavior in line with the Chicago Theater Standard.
Stewart insists that gender is irrelevant in the Shakespearean canon. However, Shakespeare Dallas made a wise choice in its selection of a female director to offer her perspective on this battle-of-the-sexes comedy.