All-Female Suffragist Shakespeare Shines in The Taming of the Shrew

Alexandra Henrikson and Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo by Liz Lauren.

How do you address the ever-problematic female groveling speeches in Shakespeare’s sexist play? Chicago Shakespeare Theatre throws a powerhouse, A-list, all-female cast at old Will’s The Taming of The Shrew, starting with the conceit of well-heeled 1919 suffragists (sometimes called suffragettes, the British term, here).

Second City stalwart Ron West penned the Columbia Women’s Club scenes. In between Michigan Avenue suffrage protests, (where “construction continues in perpetuity”), and sweet, sappy, well-sung period song snatches (“A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here”), the women rehearse a cut of Shrew in their well-appointed, chandeliered parlor (designed by Kevin Depinet), because they are flooded out of their basement auditorium.

West peppers the interstitial patter with local references, mentioning the Cubs and sniping at those coming down from Northwestern University–“I don’t get out to the country much.”

Casting director Bob Mason has skillfully merged Chicago’s fiercest drama doyennes with East Coast actresses to energetically populate the nifty double story. Miss Olivia Twist (Kate Marie Smith) shows up as a last minute replacement Lucentio, a student who wants to woo second daughter Bianca (Olivia Washington, also playing Mrs. Emily Ingersoll, the put-upon daughter of the club’s prim president).

Mrs. Beatrice Welles drives the opening as Hortensio (Tina Gluschenko), as the ladies rip off their skirts to reveal Elizabethan-appropriate pantaloons (gorgeous dresses, costumes and hats by Susan E. Mickey). Alexandra Henrikson deftly makes her Mrs. Louise Harrison and her shrewish older daughter Katherine a self-centered pain-in-the-ass in both universes.

Dr. Fannie Emmanuel / daddy Baptista (E. Faye Butler) discusses dowries with Mrs. Victor Van Dyne as Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry), while handywoman Miss Judith Smith (Hollis Resnik) as neighbor/additional Bianca lecher Gremio scurries around lobbing scenic elements and zingers, alongside servant Grumio (Rita Rehn and bearded Mrs. Mildred Sherman).

As with the suffrage movement, the power here is in assembling all these women in one place. The entire ensemble is confident, gifted and nuanced in navigating their dual roles, a counterpoint to a plotline where the amateur actresses strive to beat the Chicago Women’s Society (located at 1616 N. Wells Street, The Second City’s current home) in performing all of Shakespeare’s canon.

The strongest, most novel commentary arrives not within the layers of gender-bending, but in the race-blind casting. Butler delivers a number of clever yet painful references to police using excessive force and rampant Southern racism. A portrait of Mrs. Dorothy Mercer’s (Tranio, Heidi Kettenring) senator husband is replaced by paintings of feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton and African-American activist Ida B. Wells.

The Shakespeare jabs work too: “don’t complain about the lines you always knew you would have,” “I love Shakespeare but it’s not as though I understand him,” and Mrs. Harrison’s self-serving admission (shared with most actors), “I don’t like all the words, but I like the amount of them.”

The witty banter is a bit too on-the-nose while poking fun at current politics, like, when talking about being able to participate in elections, saying, “the popular vote means nothing,” and carrying signs saying “Grab Them by the Ballot Box.” Privileged Mrs. Harrison/Kate says, “Someone has to be disenfranchised. That’s how democracy works.”

See this vibrant production. A layered cake on a solid platter. A reflection of gender and race, tempered by pentameter during this shit storm of real world racism and misogyny.

A woman at the end of my row was crying during the opening night standing O. Women have always deserved our own shows and stories; and we need them now, more than ever.

I’m with all these Hers.

The Taming of the Shrew runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre through November 12. Tickets are $48-88, with $20 tickets for patrons under 35.

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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