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Theater review

Dress-cross’d production tames chauvinism in Shakespeare’s ‘Shrew’

Jerusalem’s community theater company Theater in the Rough is performing the comedy in Bloomfield Park through August 24

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Left to right: Gillian Kay as Gremio, Andrea Katz as Baptista, and Susan Berkson as Tranio in Theater in the Rough's 2017 performance of Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew.' (Courtesy/Merav Blum)
Left to right: Gillian Kay as Gremio, Andrea Katz as Baptista, and Susan Berkson as Tranio in Theater in the Rough's 2017 performance of Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew.' (Courtesy/Merav Blum)

Something about Shakespeare loyalists and theater geeks coming together in the Holy City just piques the interest. Even more so in the case of a roving gender-bent performance of “Taming of the Shrew” staged outdoors in Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Park.

The large cast of spectators gathered to watch the Theater in the Rough’s summer production Monday night ran the demographic gamut.

Like it or not, when sizing up a Jerusalem crowd, one often looks to the religious headgear as an indicator of which sectors are represented. The heterogeneous mix this week was a testament to Theater in the Rough’s broad fan base in the capital, spanning the devoutly religious to the completely secular. Families of all sizes, and couples young and old, spread out on the lawn to catch this fun take on a potentially controversial comedy.

Fortunately for this reviewer, the players made it easy to focus on the stage — or the lawn, as it were – and not simply due to shock value (more on that in a moment).

“Taming of the Shrew” is a tough classic to like. It’s chauvinistic for sure, misogynistic probably, and even in the conservative atmosphere of a three-pronged religious capital, doesn’t feel appropriate for the times by any stretch.

Theater in the Rough's performance of 'Taming of the Shrew,' August 14, 2017. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
Theater in the Rough’s performance of ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ August 14, 2017. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

But Theater in the Rough’s irreverent cross-dressing take on the play turned all that uncomfortable sexism right around. With women playing the main men’s roles and vice versa, it was fun. Maybe the actors didn’t invent gender parody, but they certainly make it their own.

Annabelle Landgarten’s Petruchio was just over the top enough to be laugh-out-loud funny without letting go of the fact that the character’s a bona fide jerk. Though she did play up the humor, there was a protest in her pull-no-punches portrayal of the domineering man that really struck a chord.

Left to right: Simon Montagu, Gilad Petranker, and Annabelle Landgarten in Theater in the Rough's 2017 performance of Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew.' (Courtesy/Merav Blum)
Left to right: Simon Montagu, Gilad Petranker, and Annabelle Landgarten in Theater in the Rough’s 2017 performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ (Courtesy/Merav Blum)

Katherine, played by Gilad Petranker, was also comic gold, but we never got the impression that the character was really independent – maybe because she was doomed from the start. Still, Petranker got in touch with his inner fabulous and made you want to say, “That’s right, sister. You go on with your bad self.”

And Susan Berkson’s sometimes minimalistic humor, heard loud and clear, attested to her background in comic theater in her portrayal of Tranio. It was impressive to see what she could accomplish with a tiny gesture.

Susan Berkson as Tranio takes a selfie with the crowd before the wedding scene from Theater in the Rough's performance of 'Taming of the Shrew,' August 14, 2017. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
Susan Berkson as Tranio takes a selfie with the crowd before the wedding scene from Theater in the Rough’s performance of ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ August 14, 2017. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Director Beth Steinberg encouraged the cast to capitalize on potentially funny moments, and they did this in spades, breaking scenes wide open and covering them in Theater in the Rough’s special sauce.

From the prop falafel and shawarma, to the rocking out to “My Angel is the Centerfold” as they danced spectators from one scene to the next, to Berkson’s anachronistic “wedding selfie” with the crowd prior to the final scene, the company made the Bard’s elaborate Renaissance vernacular accessible to an audience which often struggles to speak a second language here.

A fan's DIY Theater in the Rough fan gear. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
A fan’s DIY Theater in the Rough fan gear. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Overheard between scenes, from one child to another: “I really understand what they’re saying to each other!”

In part, it’s the camaraderie that keeps people coming back every year.

“I’ve been coming here since the beginning,” said 21-year-old Michal Friedman, wearing a t-shirt from the company’s 2012 production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“I don’t love Shakespeare that much, but I love the way they do it,” she said.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Sharon Ben Zioni. “The men dressed as women, the women dressed as men – I feel it was done because this is really not a politically correct play, so this way they switched it, and that sort of makes it okay.”

“Yeah,” chimed in her companion. “And when they do the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ they’re gonna have a goy playing the Jew!”

One might not have thought it, but English-speaking community theater here in the Israeli capital is alive and well – and the sizable crowd of enthusiasts is proud to let you know.

Left to right: Robin Stamler and Miriam Metzinger in Theater in the Rough's 2017 performance of Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew.' (Courtesy/Merav Blum)
Left to right: Robin Stamler and Miriam Metzinger in Theater in the Rough’s 2017 performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ (Courtesy/Merav Blum)

Theater in the Rough’s summer run of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” runs through August 24 in Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Park. Shows begin at 5:30 p.m. and are free for all ages, with a suggested donation of NIS 35 per person.

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