The Clowning of the Shrew

If commedia dellarte met Tom and Jerry, and they had a baby

Photo by Steve MayedaRuss Marchand is a clown—seriously—but not the stupid balloon-animal kind or the white face and grotesquely red-lipped kind that, in a more perfect world, would scare the crap out of any rational child or adult. Marchand is a proud member of the Zanni tribe, the highly trained and physically dexterous clowns who are integral to commedia dell'arte, a performance style that has influenced everything from MoliŤre to the Marx Brothers.

Marchand, who studied the demanding physicality of the clown at a real-life clown college in northern California, brings his love of clowning to William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, an Insurgo Theater production opening Friday at the Hunger Artists Theater in Fullerton.

Marchand is directing Shrewand promises it will be radically different from any other in recent memory. He says he doesn't care about all the controversy that surrounds this play's ostensible misogyny; doesn't worry that he ought to make a statement about the ironic nature of female power; doesn't care to stage a battle between estrogen and testosterone or deliver a searing attack on patriarchy, as directors have done in the past.

Marchand likes the rollicking, raucous comedy of Shrewand plans to inject this show with the theatrical equivalent of Gummi Bear amphetamine. He wants to have fun and, more important, wants the audience to have fun. Hence the cartoony set, the pies in the face, the intense physical comedy, the deleted dialogue, the added characters, and the props strewn about the theater—as if a clown swallowed rubber chickens, big shoes and giant eyeglasses and then blew up onstage.

"This is kind of what would happen if commedia dell'arte met Tom and Jerry, and they had a baby," Marchand explains. "It will also be the greatest single production in the history of the theater. We have everything from the world's tallest dwarf—he's six-foot-seven—to a real-life dwarf who's a bit surly and hasn't made the last three rehearsals, so maybe he won't really be in the show."

A precisely staged, uproariously funny comedy, even if it's brainless and silly, is far more worthwhile theater than a dreary stab at "important" drama; anyone who has seen a sharp production of Noises Offand then slept through a self-important three-hour Hamletwould agree. There is legitimate, worthwhile art in the type of show Marchand is attempting—which is why it's also so dangerous. If the timing is off, the physical comedy not physical enough or funny, and the chaos not intricately orchestrated, this Shrewcould bomb bigger than Madonna's Swept Away.

Though Marchand says he'd rather leave the analyzing of Shrew's sexual conflict to academics and critics, it's possible his vaudevillian, slapstick approach will shed light on one of the most studied relationships in the Shakespearean canon—that of Petruchio, the rough-hewn macho man, and Kate, the sharp-tongued, fiercely independent woman he wants to be his obedient, docile wife.

Whether intended as ironic joke, sharp social commentary or because Shakespeare got off on woman-hating, Shrewis undeniably misogynistic. Petruchio is a brutal, boastful prick who terrorizes Kate in an effort to break her spirit and turn her into an obedient, submissive wife. Which is what happens in Kate's infamous final speech, in which she delivers words that Tom Leykis might employ:

Such duty as the subject owes the prince, Even such a woman oweth to her husband. And when she is froward, peevish, sullen sour, And not obedient to his honest will, What is she but a foul, contending rebel And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

That speech has been played countless ways, particularly in the past 30 years. Sometimes it's delivered with Kate slyly winking at the audience, or stomping on Petruchio's foot at the end, or through clenched teeth, or, in Charles Marowitz's deconstructed version, in an expressionless monotone that implies Kate has been Manchurian Candidated.

They're playing the speech straight in Marchand's versionmaybe the only thing that is played straight the entire night.

John Beane, who plays Petruchio against Kimberly Fisher's Kate, said Marchand isn't overly concerned with discovering emotional truth onstage—why should he be when there are rubber chickens at hand? He says the two principals talked about their relationship and concluded that Petruchio and Kate are "extraordinary people at odds with the world for the same reason that a lot of other people are at odds with the world: they're really intelligent," he said. "They meet their match in the other" and agree to compromise.

That's Beane's perspective. But it's Fisher who ultimately crawls into the skin of this decidedly un-modern character and delivers the speech. Fisher admits she doesn't take Kate's speech personally because "Shrew is a male fantasy play, so how much truth can there be in it?" For her, it "all comes down to one very simple thing: Kate does love Petruchio. She goes to such an extreme in the end because that is what he did with her. He never actually wanted to starve her to death. But Petruchio feels he must be dramatic in his approach. So Kate, being the witty one she is, responds by taking his request over the top. She's still Kate, but a slightly more agreeable one for the sake of happiness."

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