For Shakespeare Theatre Company’s staging of The Taming of the Shrew beginning on May 17, director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar is harking back to the days of the Bard himself, when the playwright’s productions were performed by a cast of all men. Popular TV actor Maulik Pancholy (Weeds, 30 Rock) takes on the role of Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate character referred to in the title of the play.
“This play is often thought of as this ‘battle of the sexes,’ and so part of what’s interesting to me is to see what happens when we take that out of the equation by stripping away some of the assumptions we might have about gender roles,” he says. “What happens when we start to blur those lines? Hopefully, it allows us to look more deeply into these characters’ specific lives and not just think man versus woman.”
The story revolves around the courtship of Petruchio and Katherina, the shrew. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship, but Petruchio tempers her with various psychological torments – the so-called “taming” – until she becomes a compliant and obedient bride…or so it seems.
Although learning to walk in high heels has been a challenge, Pancholy admits that his preparation for playing Katherina was no different than any other role he’s played throughout his career.
“It’s been about mining the text to get to the core of who she is, and doing the homework around the parts that aren’t familiar to me, which in this case means exploring how specific women move through the world and how the world treats them,” he says. “I’ve been playing with physicality, and investigating the incredibly complex emotional journey she goes on. And for me, it’s always ultimately about staying open to that magic space where you allow the character to speak to you.”
While The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays still performed, Iskandar has added some of his signature differences, such as the inclusion of numerous contemporary pop songs sung by the actors, and an intermezzo.
“It is kind of amazing how people keep coming back to this play, isn’t it?” Pancholy asks rhetorically. “I think it’s because – like all of Shakespeare’s plays – there are so many beautiful and very human things being expressed about love, and individuality, and how we exist within our social structure. We’ve been really interested in the idea of Katherina as an ‘other,’ someone who doesn’t conform to what the world wants her to be. And I think we can all relate to that on some level.”
The Taming of the Shrew is the first of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) path-breaking Clarice Smith Series: New Directors for the Classics. Iskandar is well known for his immersive works, and the audience’s experience will go beyond what’s up on the stage.
For example, throughout the show’s run, Sidney Harman Hall will host a local artisan market – a series of workshops led by DC artists and performances surrounding the show itself. Pancholy says STC is creating an experience that starts on the streets outside of Sidney Harman Hall and continues into the lobbies and the theater, and then on to events during intermission.
“Hopefully, [the experience is] something that people will live with long after they’ve left the performance space. I think people will find it to be something they’ve never seen before.”