Springtime in Hillsdale: The sidewalk ice thaws, the snow turns to sleet, then to rain, then to sunshine, and as the students begin bravely to venture out of doors, so too do the theatrical productions.
On May 6 in Slayton Arboretum, the curtain will rise on Shakespeare in the Arb’s 14th annual performance: Elizabethan rom-com “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring sophomore Molly Kate Andrews as Katherina, the eponymous shrew, and freshman Mitchell Biggs as her braggadocious suitor Petruchio.
In “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare attempts to answer one of literature’s age-old questions: What’s a father to do when his comely daughter (Bianca, played by sophomore Rachael Menoksy) is swimming in suitors, but custom dictates that the misandrist elder sister (Andrews’ Kate) must be got rid of first?
For some, the play’s apparent answer induces a cringe: Find a guy who will hold his nose, marry her for money, and carry her off against her will! Indeed, “The Taming of the Shrew” is far from Shakespeare’s most fashionable play in our current cultural climate. But the directorial team of senior Noah Diekemper and junior Nikolai Dignoti have approached the play with an eye toward redeeming the story from its misogynistic reputation — and re-excavating the hilarity of a truly hilarious work.
“When I first approached Petruchio, I saw him as a misogynistic sociopath,” Biggs said. “But there’s clearly a depth to him. He loves Katherina, but in this weird, twisted way he decides that the only way they can be together is if he brings her down to a ‘regular’ level. So he does all these things that are absurd, but his actual intent isn’t as crazy as his execution.”
Both Diekemper and Dignoti are theatrical vets, but both are new to the directing game.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed about the process is that it isn’t exclusively the directors telling the actors what to do,” Dignoti said. “The actors have been very collaborative in helping us find new ways to tackle the script without going too far off Shakespeare’s goals, or finding ways to interpret things that might take a very stereotypically misogynistic play and bring it to life in a way that everyone can enjoy.”
Once production got underway last fall, they got into the groove quickly, with Diekemper providing the overall vision and Dignoti helping the actors to bring that vision to fruition.
“In our setup, the director is the person with whom the buck stops for almost everything that goes on, so every component of the play has to be at least on my radar,” Diekemper said. “Definitely at the beginning I was inundating the actors with a lot of nitpicky notes, which my co-director told me to scale back on. So it’s developed really well.”
The production follows on the heels of the Tower Players’ production of “Kiss Me Kate,” a musical set in the 1940s that concerns a horrendous adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“We consulted the theatre department because we had this really fun idea — Oh, they’re doing ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ so what if we just do ‘Taming of the Shrew’?” Dignoti said. “We thought it’d be very fun to play off the theme there.”
“I thought it would be a nice balance,” Diekemper added, “to be able to see the original after the Cole Porter treatment.”
There’s an added layer of challenge for Shakespeare in the Arb’s production team to surmount beyond merely putting on a quality Shakespeare play. They’ve had to deal with staging a quality Shakespeare play outside.
“Most of Shakespeare’s best works are very long,” Dignoti said. “And making them work for the Arb and for time constraints like sunlight, heat, bugs — you have a very narrow window to play in. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a 120-page play; we cut it down to around 80.”
In addition to keeping runtime manageable, Dignoti said, the cuts allowed them to keep the play relatively family-friendly.
“Really all of Shakespeare’s work is designed to appeal to both the highbrow and the lowbrow,” he said. “You can’t have this really great pun about Victorian leadership without also including a [sex] joke in the same scene. We tried to strike a balance between keeping some of the fun jokes in there, but not going overboard with them. We’re trying to appeal to full families, to as many audiences as possible.”
Of course, the best way to keep an audience entertained is with knockout acting, and the cast has been happy to oblige.
“Both of our leads, Mitchell Biggs and Molly Kate Andrews, have been amazingly good,” Diekemper said. “They have a ton of lines, and got off-book faster than anyone; they have worked their scenes tirelessly, they’ve been huge creative forces in the development of the play, and they’re exceptional to work with.”
Part of the fun of Petruchio, Biggs said, is in the mismatch between his character’s outsize personality and his own.
“He’s much louder than I am, much more aggressive than I am,” Biggs said. “He’s fake in the aggression sometimes, but serious. He wants to be in control, because he’s not always in control. Finding a balance, knowing when he is and when he isn’t, is challenging.”
But it’s a challenge the whole production team is excited to bring to the stage.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Diekemper said. “Being able to direct a production is kind of a dream come true, and I’m thrilled with the people I’ve had to work with on this project and what we’ve come up with.
“You should definitely come see this show.”