“Dream a Little Dream of Me” softly plays from a laptop, evoking a time when women shunned corsets and long skirts and were reveling in their victory of winning the vote. Two actors read text written by Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf while the rest of the ensemble performs a movement piece devised by them collectively. The dramaturg types edits into the script, diligently updating. And the director watches carefully, meticulously taking note of every movement and how it can be perceived in front of an audience, always tireless in her pursuit to bring her vision to the stage.
The assiduous director is Christine Freije, an emerging artist based in Philly, and this is Shrew, her deconstructed, socio-political adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Christine often ADs for prominent directors around town and spent this past winter directing a production of Chicago at her alma mater, College of the Holy Cross. She is a member of Reject Theatre Project, where she has made it a point to be involved in all things Shakespeare in our company’s short history. Our first project was Coriolanus: Shakespeare Roulette, the brainchild and passion project of Lesley Berkowitz-Zak, in which the ensemble of actors performed a staged reading of the little known tragedy and chose their character each night in front of the audience by pulling the role out of a Phillies cap. Christine and I assisted Lesley in cutting the lengthy script down to a much more producible two and one half hour, and providing support dramaturgically throughout the process. For our fundraiser event last August, she created a “condensed Tempest” movement piece using three actors, live music, and acrobatics. Christine has made it a mission to dissect and deconstruct Shakespeare, honoring his work while simultaneously messing with it, using the stories and language to push her own agenda.
This particular adaptation of the Bard’s work is an all-female, anger-inducing, feminist, hold-nothin’-back devised deconstruction featuring more new work than old-school Elizabethan-text. Christine was originally inspired to tackle this play when she read a blog written by a woman who was having problems in her marriage due to what she describes as disobedience on her part. She watched the Taylor/Burton version of the play and it answered all her prayers for a better marriage – she had to submit to her husband, stop fighting with him, and just accept his love. (The link to this blog is below; it’s a real treat.) Filled with fury over the article, Christine began to scheme about exploring how damaging the work was, why we keep producing a “problem play,” and how much longer our society should continue to accept the cultural mores celebrated in it. She began workshopping last spring, with much of the same cast she is rehearsing with now.
How much influence does a play that’s pushing the ripe age of 426 have on our society? Even if we think it doesn’t have much, aren’t many of the problems in the problem play still relevant today? Random men demand women they pass on the street to smile, because that’s what women should do: be happy and pretty, comply. A girl in grade school who takes charge is a “know-it-all” or a “bossypants,” but a boy is seen as a future leader. When men stray, it’s because that’s nature and women are nags. How’s that song go in Much Ado? “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more/Men were deceivers ever.” I think it’s safe to say no one in this production sighs. All of these talented, independent female artists are not going to let it go. They’re going to kick and scream and fight for more.
“It’s going to be pretty. But nobody get kicked!” Christine advises as she prepares her cast to run through a segment. Her counsel perfectly displays the contrasts in this production: deep, guttural cries interrupt statuesque dance pieces, intense stage combat plows over flowery scenes stuffed with iambic pentameter, and characters quoting the Bible clash with David Attenborough as he tries to explain the meaning and purpose of a S(s)hrew. The cast is boldly asking tough questions and becoming an unstoppable force, cranking out unique, honest, dynamic, strong, and sometimes absurdist pieces every rehearsal. They have begun to establish a rhythm in their work, literally and figuratively, acting as a unit, becoming a company. The environment in the room is positive and energetic, with everyone pushing back against the same injustices and debating their ideas respectfully. Christine has fearlessly led them through one week, with three left to go. Based on what’s been created so far, I know there’s some killer work to be built in the upcoming weeks.
We go up June 17th at Asian Arts Initiative. You can buy tickets in the link below. I hope to see you there, clutching your copy of the Feminist Manifesto, braless, and ready to laugh, sob, discover, and most importantly, fight.