It's Shakespeare, ya dig?
I have seen multiple treatments of this play, but before yesterday evening I had not seen it as it was written. I've witnessed Kiss Me Kate by the Young People's Musical Theater in SF and the Broadway Version. And while Cole Porter's songwriting is superb, truth be told, I was underwhelmed by both these performances.
I've also seen 10 Things I Hate About You, the teenybopper update on the play. It features a post-Roar, pre-Brokeback, strangely dark-haired Heath Ledger singing "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"-- the only halfway funny thing in the movie.
Although if you just lift Shakespeare's plots without its language, you basically lose the essence of the Bard's genius. Because, from what I've learned, many of Shakespeare's plots usually weren't even entirely his own to begin with. Not to mention that the plots are far from airtight, and some of his comedies might be nothing but generic farce were it not for the literary complexity.
So finally I went to a production of the play in it's traditional form. It was done by the African American Shakespeare Company, and while it took some liberties with the langauge and was set in the 70's, most of it remained intact.
In fact, while purists may squirm at the sound of Shakespeare's English being tainted by an occasional "Ya, dig" , "Yo", or "Foxy Lady", I felt that it was a clever reimagining. This was a spirited interpretation with funky style (think leather trench, ultra-crazy full length print dresses, afros, newsboy caps, platforms, and even a dredlock or two). Plus, there were some delightful moments in the play where the characters would break into 70's soul classics. Whether it was a quick clip from "Sexy Thang" to commemorate allusions to Petruchio's late father, or "Could it be I'm Falling in Love" lip-synched and danced to by Lucentio, the lyrics and sentiment of the songs actually matched the storyline fairly accurately. These musical interludes, while treading the line of cheese, were pulled off with flair surprisingly well. They never crossed the line of being too over the top, and served only to increase the hilarity of the comedic nature of the play, making it that much more of an entertaining experience--you never knew when a little Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye would sneak up on you. Furthermore, the artistic choice to juxtapose their music with Shakespeare is an acknowledgement of the cultural and literary value of their musicianship.
The innovative blocking that reflected the era--like a Shaft pose or a James Brown disrobing--which could be construed as a form of modern urban gesticulation/movement, also contributed to the creativity of the intepretation to great effect.
But do not think for a moment that the success of this rendition relied solely on gimmicks or 70's nostalgia. The acting by the two leads was very strong and high energy, which is absolutely necessary for such demanding roles. Nor did they butcher the language, which can often happen in Shakespeare. There were a few weak performances, but overall it was a excellent job by a fine company.
I'm convinced to see future prodcutions of theirs, and maybe next time you can come with me!
Check it out! http://www.african-americanshakes.org/