HVSF Company Member Biko Eisen-Martin has been bringing “collegiate gamesmanship and good looks” (New York Times) to the stage this summer as THE TAMING OF THE SHREW’s wild Petruchio. As the show comes to a close, Biko shares his take on the two raging fires that are Kate and Petruchio, his unexpected wedding arrival, and the places where a subversive approach to the text fell short.
We haven’t heard much from Petruchio this summer!
Yeah, I think that’s fine. Because we’ve built this show to highlight Kate in a way she hasn’t been seen before, I think Petruchio naturally gets highlighted as well. So much of who he is as a character is based off of Kate and their interactions together, and vice versa. There is no one without the other.
Britney Simpson, who plays Bianca, suggested that Bianca is the true “shrew” to be tamed. Do you agree?
This play is so open for interpretation. In one of our post-show talkbacks earlier this season, Liz [Wisan, who plays Kate] said that I, Petruchio, was really the “shrew” that Kate was taming. I think there’s a lot of validity in that. For Petruchio, none of this shit is easy for him. You can so clearly see these mistakes he’s making, but you can also see he’s coming from the same place that Kate is: we have rules and parameters in this world of Padua, and trying to operate within them really isn’t working for him. In most productions of TAMING, we see Petruchio with a dumb smile on his face — like, things are easy — while Kate is really struggling. Our goal with this show was for their coming together to not be just another conquest, but a yearning for agreement between them. To tame Kate became a metaphor for her to finally look at Petruchio as a person who loves her, not more of the same that she’s been dealing with. It’s all about the love.
What stuck out to you about the script during rehearsal?
Petruchio has a lot of reverence for his recently-deceased father, which shows in his oozing machismo and trying to prove himself to the other guys around him. It seems like since his dad died, he’s on this manic trip. He’s in a vulnerable space, which makes him desperately want to prove something; it’s a sort of reverse-high of losing someone. But then he meets this woman who’s amazing… and that ends up becoming the ride.
Did this show illuminate anything new for you about Kate and Petruchio’s relationship?
There’s one thing about Kate and Petruchio that I really like and grasped onto this summer, which I originally discovered while watching an interview from a production of TAMING that the Royal Shakespeare Company did a few years back. Even though these are two epically iconic characters, and even though this relationship has become the prototype for almost every male/female romantic relationship to come since it was written, it is still our decision as artists and audiences to say, “these are the universal lessons of man and woman,” as opposed to, “these are two totally insane, crazy-ass characters, and this is how they come together, not how every man and woman will come together.” There’s enough in the text to support the development of these characters as abnormally hot-headed individuals before they fall in love.
Also, there were some things that I don’t think were fully resolved in this production. I still think there’s something inherently wrong with using Petruchio’s servants as tools for some kind of bigger lesson, like pieces that are essentially props he can smack around, spill stuff on, throw stuff at. In looking at the original script, what you realize is that most of the mean-spirited stuff we’re used to isn’t actually written; it’s just the way most European male actors and directors have chosen to interpret the script. There’s nothing in the text that says the servants are total morons. There’s some notation about Petruchio hitting them, but does it actually have to be a hit? Can we subvert that? Can there be a different lesson here than the typical tantrum carried out by human beings on other human beings? But it’s somehow okay to audiences. I bet none of the people who are saying, “I hate that text, it’s so sexist,” are also thinking “I hate that text, Petruchio just beats on his servants the whole time.” For me, that’s very problematic.
What was it like to develop this show with a room full of clowns?
I thought I was in the wrong show for the first three weeks! But Shana Cooper, our director, encouraged me not to be a clown: as in, “no, you’re a real person in this clown world and you want to take Kate out of this clown world.” I think in some ways Petruchio can be funny even if he’s not that way throughout the whole show. He does foolish things. I also saw how humor works in a space like this. It really disarms an audience, because you can’t help but enjoy yourself. You go along for the ride. There are also these big, comedic, theatrical moments — our dances (like “Tom, Dick and Harry”), much of the wedding scene, Kate dancing with her father — that, while hilarious, are also pretty heart-felt and discussable. They come from these “essence pieces” we would do.
Tell us more about that?
Shana does this with all of her shows. She’ll stage imaginary “essence pieces” throughout the rehearsal process that incorporate improv, movement, and prop work. Ultimately, they provide the vocabulary for a lot of those bigger theatrical moments. For instance, we once staged the funeral of Kate and Bianca’s mom, which was intense. Stepping out of the text for a bit gives you background on the characters that can help bring things to the foreground. Another one involved Hortensio and Gremio playing with cupcakes and cigars, and that’s how the cigars became so central to their time onstage. Different elements clearly become the language of the play, and they order themselves in specific ways that create the world of the production.
…Did you say yes to the dress?
Honestly, I think everyone was worried that I would respond negatively, because I didn’t get much of a chance to respond! But I understood what Shana was trying to get out of it: that women are forced into this ceremonial bubble and Petruchio just wants to be in that bubble with her, to brave that construct with her, and to shed some light on how ridiculous the whole thing is. My concern was, with this play in which we’re trying so hard to subvert gender and gender roles, are we showing people that a man showing up to a wedding in a dress is wrong, or something to be laughed at? Is it satire just because I’m wearing a dress? But I’ve had different conversations with audience members and I like that it’s a conversation-starter. The last woman I spoke with was like, “what the heck was that dress about?!” But then she went on to explain, “I think you were just trying to show Kate, like, I got you, I’m crazier than you’ll ever be!” Like I said, the play is so open for interpretation. You can take what you want from that moment.
I was really into the jewelry. I started coming up with my own equivalents, like rappers that have been showing up to big public events lately in dresses. I think that’s in a similar spirit. Petruchio’s not in drag or mocking drag, he’s still the same guy, but making a big, bold move. And I love that moment when I pull the cell phone out of my dress. Petruchio usually has pants on and some sword he can unsheathe, but that really wouldn’t work in the world when he’s wearing a dress. What am I gonna do? Pull a knife or some nunchucks from my dress? So aside from the politics of it, I thought it was a really nice theatrical solve. It always gets a consistent gasp, and then a laugh.
Is there anything else onstage that you want audiences to pay attention to?
The wooing scene! When other actors see the show and love that scene, it’s such a big compliment. Essentially every actor has seen or done it in acting class (it’s one of the more popular Shakespeare scenes, I think), and so before I knew what Petruchio was all about I knew that scene. But, staging it was such an arduous process. There were days when we’d only focus on the fight elements, or just the improv elements. We worked long and hard and the scene changed many, many different times. Liz and I are similarly strong, so there was a lot of soreness and bruises on both of our wrists. The technicality of it, the emotional toll of it, the wins and losses… I hope that people enjoyed it.