Rich Monetti

Q&A: The Queen’s Company’s ‘Shrew’ Is on Message

The very notion or necessity of taming an outspoken, independent woman—or a shrew—is about as offensive as it gets. It’s a criticism Shakespeare came up against even in his time, so any production today must partly run afoul of such discussion. But Rebecca Patterson has been directing the play long enough to know better. Having first done Taming of the Shrew in 2005 and having workshopped it for the last few years, she’s secure in the knowledge that Shakespeare always moves “toward the light” and doesn’t worry that the real message will be lost.

OffOffOnline: What is your interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew?

Rebecca Patterson: Shakespeare is a humanist. He has extreme compassion for people who are getting the short end of the stick, so this is not a battle of the sexes. It’s about marriage and the oppression that happens at the most intimate of places, which is in our hearts and our bedrooms. On the other hand, he’s also extremely honest, and writing in a misogynistic time. This meant he explored his world but still hoped to shift domination and submission in relationships on a path toward egalitarianism.

OffOffOnline: Are we allowed to laugh?

Patterson: That’s what’s so amazing about the play. It’s dark, it’s dangerous, and it’s funny. Of course, the situation Katherina is caught in is not funny. But one of the most empowering things you can do is laugh or tell a joke.  So there are points that are hilarious, but the one thing that is often ignored is the Bianca story. What I’ve done—given the expectations for her suitors—was have her played by a—

OffOffOnline: By what?

Patterson: A blow-up doll.

OffOffOnline: Oh, really.

Patterson [laughing]: Exactly. A blow-up doll is perfect, because she’s what everybody wants her to be.

OffOffOnline: Does she speak?

Patterson: That’s what made it so easy to lift out her lines. She doesn’t really affect anybody and doesn’t have any effect. So people talk around her, but she does speak at the end because even the blow-up doll finds her voice.

OffOffOnline: What are you trying to get across by using an all-female cast?

Patterson: Nothing. One of the things that I’ve found is contemporary women are better able to channel the Renaissance male reality, which is emotionally accessible and strong. Still, Shakespeare is all about humanity—not necessarily men and women. So if we do an all-female cast, it resonates simply as human.

OffOffOnline: Why do you think women have better access?

Patterson: Because contemporary men from a young age are taught not to show their emotion, but the Renaissance man must have a fully expressed emotional life to understand Shakespeare’s journeys. You have to see into their souls, and that degree of inner transparency is easier for contemporary women.

OffOffOnline: How else do you diverge from the original?

Paterson: Shakespeare is like a diamond: there are so many difference facets. But I am true to the words that are spoken. The only thing is I have streamlined some scenes because the theatrical expectations are different from the audience. Still, people always ask if I keep the final scene where Katherina lays out the expectation that women had to be subservient. That’s what he wrote. Shakespeare was being honest, but the play doesn’t end there. We take a modern context. For anybody who’s been caught in a marriage of subservience, there’s a journey that still needs to be taken—especially for the dominator to get to a place where they can truly love.

OffOffOnline: Was Shakespeare the only one who wrote in rhyme?

Patterson: They all wrote that way at the time. It was thought that the elevated speech was how you unleashed the human heart. Shakespeare was just the one who did it best.

OffOffOnline: What if you don’t necessarily speak Shakespeare. Can you still enjoy this?

Patterson: My actors are extremely talented and well trained classical actors. So people walk out of our play, and say, “I’m impressed how you updated the language.” But we don’t. The trick is you have to find the rhythms of the language. I liken it to rap. So we make him strut, and the consonants and vowels actually reach inside of us to play our hearts.

OffOffOnline: How do you see your role as a director?

Patterson: My actors see the text as I do, so all I do is guide them to places where there might be a misinterpretation. It’s less about doing it wrong, and more about “There’s something else here” or “I don’t think this is what the moment is about.”

Tickets can be purchased by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or online at web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1459483200000. The Taming of the Shrew runs through May 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3rd St. between Avenues A and B) in Manhattan.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday.

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Q&A: Stronach’s Choreography Drives ‘Light, A Dark Comedy’

Tami Stronach began her career playing the Childlike Empress in The NeverEnding Story (1984). However, she followed the screen credit by pursuing dance. While dancing full-time on her toes, she started to miss theater so her next move brought her back. Fortunately, acting chops didn’t have to suffer the lift her high step always gave her. As part of Flying Machine with several friends, this company approached theater though movement, and for seven years, she stayed connected to both disciplines before folding. But the members eventually realized they missed each other, and coalesced movement around providing high quality theater for families. The formation of Paper Canoe would coincide with a New Victory Theater LabWorks program seeking plays for children and resulted in a production that “sucks the light out of the theater,” according to Stronach, who choreographed the play and stars as the lead character Moth. OffOffOnline: So does Light, A Dark Comedy have everyone in the dark, bumping into each other?

Stronach: No, the play is well lit. The audience can see everything. It’s the language of the play. But the premise is the sun has been stolen and forgotten. We’re trying to show how quickly history can vanish, and the importance of keeping stories alive.

OffOffOnline: Who stole the sun and why?

Q&A: Stronach’s Choreography Drives ‘Light, A Dark Comedy’

Stronach: The world was constantly lit and everybody worked all the time. This meant everything was go-go-go, and people never saw their children. At the same time, the space for reflection and dreaming got sucked up into this constant, bright, manic whirlwind. So an inventor tried to bring balance by creating a dark maker and ended up stealing the sun. The world was left in the dark, and Moth, my character, is trying to bring it back.

OffOffOnline: Where did this idea come from?

Stronach:We were brainstorming, and our director (Adrienne Kapstein) just said, “what if we created a world where there was no light.” We decided that was near impossible. But the impossibility intrigued us. Then Greg Steinbruner, Robert Ross Parker and I went on a writer’s retreat. We covered the wall with Post-it Notes and came up with the first two acts. But eventually Greg made revisions and completed the end. On the other hand, this is physical theater. So the story was written as we improvised things in rehearsal. We would then go home, and write what they saw. So the relationship between image and text was very organic and fluid. This amounted to a play written by a choreographer, a writer and a physical theater artist—providing all these different entry ways into the drama. Then last year Greg Steinbruner rebuilt the script into what it is now with the help of dramaturge Jeremy Stoller. Ultimately our goal as a company is to produce work that is as rich in narrative and text as it is invested in creating visual poetry. 

OffOffOnline: Can you describe this world a little more?

Stronach: The actors wore a headgear called dim makers, which helps them see, and the city functions on a grid of hooks and ropes so people don’t get lost. It’s sort of like the trolley system in San Francisco. But acts as a metaphor for staying inside the box and not questioning the way things are. As a result, adults might contract “the sleep,” where they enter into a dream state and never come out.

OffOffOnline: How does Moth figure into all this?

Stronach: She unplugs from the grid, and goes off into the darkness where she meets a boy who has lived his whole life alone. Figuring out all these genius mechanisms for surviving, they then meet Sunny and Ray who have created a clandestine radio show. From their platform, the duo pretends to be on a beach and have gone into complete fantasy to deal with the problem. So they sit around and pontificated about the sun without doing anything about it. But the idea is to have characters with flaws and together there’s enough inertia and alchemy to achieve the things that shift society.

OffOffOnline: The play is billed as a little scary? Do parents have to worry?

Stronach: Well, it’s a mix. There’s a lot of humor, but I think losing your mom in a black void would be scary for a 4-year old.  An 8-year old, on the other hand, should be fine and doesn’t mind being a little scared—especially since we have a happy ending.

OffOffOnline: What was the challenge of writing for children and adults?

Stronach: People underestimate the intellect of kids. They come into the theater with fewer assumptions and are more willing to be carried away by the story. So the story can reach audiences of all ages.

OffOffOnline: Finally, what message are you conveying about breaking free from your parents’ worldview?

Stronach: Moth doesn’t accept the gloomy truth she’s supposed to accept, and she changes the world. So I want my daughter to believe that she has the strength to find solutions that my generation didn’t think of.

Read Ray Morgovan's review of Light, A Dark Comedy here.

Light, A Dark Comedy runs until April 10 at the Triskelion Arts Muriel Schulman Theater (106 Calyer St. between Clifford Pl. and Banker St.) in Brooklyn. Matinee performances are Saturday and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Tickets cost $18. To purchase tickets, visit www.papercanoecompany.com

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Q&A: Fly Takes Off at the New Victory Theater

In 2008, as director Ricardo Khan was co-writing Fly with Trey Ellis, he made sure to be present as the Tuskegee Airmen were being honored at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. His realization was that the moment was set aside to recognize all the doors that these brave Americans opened. But for all the courage, perseverance and patriotism that propelled them, patience may have been the strength this corps of African-American fighter pilots needed most to see through their dream of making America a better place. OffOffOnline: What did they return to?

Khan: A country that seemed more racist than when they left. Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and the civil rights movement — it took a long time to fully see the tide turn.

OffOffOnline: How much of the story do you tell?

Khan: The training they undertook in Tuskegee, and dealing with the Jim Crow laws, segregation, and instructors and politicians who just did not want them to be there. But we begin and end the play with the inauguration.

OffOffOnline: How long has their story been part of you?

Khan: Since I was very young when I saw a picture of them that just fascinated me. The pride and the stance they were all taking — tall, well dressed and very proper like they were ready to change the world.

OffOffOnline: How is Fly different than other telling's of this story?

Khan:  We have an interest in being able to tell the story of individual people so they’re not just figures in history.  Then taking all the different personalities and egos, the play is about coming together as a team. That’s an important part of the way we did it. Because unlike television or movies, theater has a magical capacity to connect the actors to the audience to a point where you become a community. This hopefully leaves the audience walking out just a little better a person than when they walked in.

OffOffOnline: How do you show the strength of these men when it would have been easier to be resentful toward America?

Khan: This wasn’t a time when people were saying, "I don’t like my country." They were saying the opposite and wanted to be part of making a difference. Of course, they realized as bad as American racism was, fascism was worse. So they wanted to contribute, and believed if they could succeed, maybe one day racism could be toppled.

OffOffOnline: Tell me about the airmen (Brooks Brantley, Desmond Newsom, Omar Edwards and Terrell Wheeler), and the range of emotions they exhibit?

Khan: There is a huge range of emotions they represent — some are more filled with range, others with optimism. But at the same time, they’re young and in the army and not everything can be expressed. They’re also black, which means representing their race, and that adds to all the pressures to restrict their emotions. So we use an African and hip-hop rooted tap dance to convey the emotions that can’t be told in words.

OffOffOnline: How did you come up with this idea?

Khan: I wanted to find a way to grab the attention of a present-day audience so they weren’t just listening but were fully immersed. Tap ties to the '40s and hip-hop provides a hook to today so that it doesn’t feel like a history lesson.

OffOffOnline: How do you create action in the play?

Khan: We use video projections and tap to help create this world, but little props create the real action. All I have is four chairs and the airman’s trunks, and by manipulating them into different positions, the message comes across. So we might tilt a trunk up to symbolize a soda counter. The approach allows me to be as creative as I can to challenge the audience. As a result, the viewers are able to use their imagination to create a world in which we are not just feeding them information.

OffOffOnline: How hard is it to watch the play without being able to stop the action like in a film?

Khan: It’s extremely hard. But I’m doing another play in St. Louis so I’m going to preview the rehearsal today [March 1] and give my notes. Then I’m flying out, so in a way, I’m getting a reprieve.

OffOffOnline: Finally, what’s the message you hope people take away?

Khan: Don’t believe what you’re being fed about how different we are because of the color of your skin or if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. We are all in this together, and chapters in history like the Tuskegee Airmen, truly shows the ways in which we are the same outweigh the ways in which we are different.

Fly is running at the New Victory Theater (209 West 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves.) in Manhattan until March 27. Performance times vary. Tickets range from $15-$38 and can be purchased at http://www.newvictory.org/Show-Detail.aspx?ProductionId=6912

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