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Shakespeare's Shrew is tamed in 1950s suburbia

STANFORD -- How now! How came Petruchio to wive it wealthily in suburbia?

By the time a white picket fence drops from the rafters of Little Theater and cast members wheel a cream- colored Hillman convertible on stage, theatergoers may be so immersed in 1950s Americana that Shakespeare's 16th- century Padua may seem a distant -- nay, unlikely -- setting for his Taming of the Shrew.

"Shrew is such an odious, misogynist play that three years ago I would never have put it on stage," says Kirstie Gulick, a doctoral candidate and director of the Drama Department's last major production of the year, which opens May 18. "I mean, why do we still laugh at this play, which is about violence to women?

"And we do laugh, every time we see it. Kate gets beaten up and we think it's funny. She gets starved and we think it's funny. Then she gets tamed and kisses Petruchio, and we get a kind of warm feeling in our hearts. Why?"

As those questions began to fly a year ago, Gulick kept returning to Shakespeare's text. She was particularly intrigued with his "induction," a framing device -- cut from most productions -- that sets up a play within a play. As Gulick read about the wealthy lord in the induction who picks a drunken beggar off the streets, dresses him in finery and invites him to be entertained for the duration of an evening, she couldn't escape comparisons with 1950s American culture.

"I began thinking about television and advertising and about who decided how we would be entertained," she says. "It took me back to the '50s when heterosexual white males who had a lot of money and were producing television were presenting this idealized image of woman in domestic bliss as a sort of cultural icon, and also using women to sell products."

Instead of doing a "stodgy, academic, doublet- and-hose production with asses carrying Kate to Padua," Gulick joined forces with Bay Area designer John Wilson to stage the show with the comedic abandon that Shakespeare may well have intended. "Like many of his early comedies, Shrew has a commedia dell'arte feel, with lots of zany running around, exchanging identities and general goofiness," she says.

Wilson, who won five awards this year for his work with Bay Area theater companies, says of his first reaction to Gulick's '50s concept: "Suddenly she dropped this bomb on me, and all I could think was, 'Oh, that's interesting.'

"I had already done a certain amount of reading and thinking about the play, so I went back and read the script again, and it was amazing how her concepts fit. I had never seen a production of Shrew that mined the depths of comedy as much as this one does, and I've discovered that the wonderful thing about working with Kirstie is that she has such fresh, funny ideas."

Wilson himself has pulled more than a few droll bunnies from his magical hat of design tricks. In front of a painted backdrop that advertises Miss Clairol, Admiral television sets, Vitalis, Buitoni canned meat sauce and cigarettes ad nausea, Wilson plans to hang a collage of household objects -- "small pieces -- vacuum cleaners and such." Poodle skirts and cheerleader pompons figure prominently in his costume sketches, along with a "destroyed wedding dress" that Kate wears to wreak her mechanical revenge on Petruchio's sportscar.

With four wheeling set pieces and five that fly, the procession of moving parts is technically staggering. A barbecue grill, umbrella table and refrigerator take stage center in various scenes, then back off for a wedding procession through a stylish backyard that would have been the envy of Ward Cleaver.

"We're trying to make it more immediate and more interesting to an audience of the late 20th century, in terms that they can relate to," says Wilson. "And I think we're far enough away from the '50s now that we can see it as a discrete period in and of itself, a period of idealism, at least on the surface."

Gulick, who came to Stanford from Britain's National Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre and Man in the Moon Theater in London, clearly has enjoyed the production that has emerged from the "collaborative art" of her colleagues and cast. She says that Thomas Freeland, who acted professionally for several years before coming to Stanford for a doctoral program in drama, brings considerable range to the character of Petruchio, and Caroline Bicks, graduate student in English, commands attention as Kate.

"Some [characterizations] are imposed, of course, like my take on Lucentio, who is the wooer of Bianca, and who I think is brain dead and interested only in his body and clothing," says Gulick. "That was a little tough for the actor [Aaron Rubenson] at first, but he took it and ran, and has been wonderful.

"And in the case of Hortensio, the actor playing him [Matthew Seidman] had three different takes and showed them all to me. The final one was the most interesting -- and the one I least expected -- and it's that kind of evolving interpretation that makes it all such fun."



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