Power and Play in the Park

Shakespeare tales unfold under the stars.


Two women who know their own minds and want their own ways are at the centers of back-to-back alignments of the plays presented this summer by Nebraska Shakespeare in Elmwood Park.  Each woman confronts an ambitious man who yearns to prosper and gain power in time and place.

The comic point of view dominates The Taming of the Shrew. Darkness and death inhabit the land of Macbeth.   

Amy Lane and Vincent Carlson-Brown are the directors and both plan the look and feel of ages gone by, reflecting on how those periods define Shakespeare’s characters and what happens to them. Of course, the productions also seek to remind us that the complexities of human nature and human behavior therein are timeless.    

Lane came up with the idea to have an all-male cast interpret The Taming of the Shrew. Not for comic or campy effect, although it is full of broad and rowdy business. Rather she confronts the prevailing modern notion that the underlying premise is misogynistic.

Lane points out that she intends to have the production resemble the period in which it was created, hence an acting company exclusively of men. Thus, “to embrace the lack of female authenticity,” representing the gender roles of Elizabethan England. Of this famed Shakespeare creation, she adds, “while it may transgress some of these patriarchal rules of behavior, it certainly doesn’t subvert them.”

This battle of the sexes, she continues, “leaves us with a lot to contemplate about gender’s function in our own contemporary society.”

“Gender in Shrew,” she says, “is ultimately revealed to be a social construct, a performance rather than an identity,” reminding us that, although the scenes take place in Italy, it is actually within the theatrical boundaries of the stage wherein the characters are playing roles themselves. She feels that this delightful invention closely resembles many elements of Commedia dell’arte, incorporating versions of Pantalone, Arlecchino, Il Dottore and Il Capitano along with characteristic mistaken identities all over the place, including masters pretending to be servants and vice versa. Nonetheless, she wants to make it clear that Shakespeare wants us to look behind the masks to see “full human beings.” 

The essence: Petruchio comes to town to woo Katharina (aka “Kate”), whose familial wealth he covets. She, headstrong with a notorious temper, will have no such union.  However, her father Baptista forces her into the marriage after which Petruchio intends to show his manhood by putting her in her place.  A subplot revolves around two other men, Hortensio and Gremio, who compete for a union with Katherina’s more obviously desirable sister Bianca. Baptista would not have allowed Bianca to marry before his older daughter. Thus have the three suitors become earnest companions.   

There always will be multiple interpretations of what Shakespeare was really trying to say in The Taming of the Shrew, including that this may be a satire on characteristic male attitudes of his day. Rather than showing his own limited perspective about female behavior and character, some critics observe that that seems unlikely, given how he didn’t necessarily show women as weak and subservient, relegating them to secondary social significance. Clearly such ideas are contradicted by some of his other women characters. Harken to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Cleopatra or Much Ado’s Beatrice. Plus, of course, Lady Macbeth, hardly a shrinking violet.

The Tragedy of Macbeth focuses on the rise and fall of the Scot of that name, wherein his wife, as is well-known, is a major force pushing him. Just as Petruchio and Katharina make tightly-held choices to control their lives, so too do Macbeth and his Lady. “They are presented truths,” says Carlson-Brown. “They are asked to act and react according to those truths,” and, subsequently, cursed by ambition, epitomize “the struggle of free will against resignation to destiny, or the fates.” Truth provokes thought, he continues, setting up decisions which can be “mundane or epic, life-affirming or life–altering,” asking if the results are inevitable or if “we really are in control of our destinies?”

He also describes his concept as about alienation in an amoral world, discovering that “hell is not a place elsewhere, but the nightmare within.”  Thereby Carlson-Brown posits an imagined territory, as if dreamed rather than real, peopled by thanes of Scotland juxtaposed with Japanese tribal traditions guided by samurai principals, European monarchy mingling with Eastern mysticism. Suggestions of parallel times emerge, similar ways of life and death in medieval, war-like states.

As for the well-known tale, Macbeth, a brave general, receives a prophecy from other-worldly beings that he will become King of Scotland. They make other prophecies as well. Spurred by his wife to hasten that destiny, Macbeth murders the king and takes the throne. Thereafter he and his Lady become wracked by guilt, then ultimately turn to tyranny as Macbeth commits more murders to protect himself from suspicion. Other prophecies ring true until finally he is overthrown in a bloody civil war. 

Those beings named above are often called witches. Carlson-Brown made another choice, naming them The Weyward Sisters, consistent with their identities in the First Folio. Not long thereafter they came to be known as Weird Sisters before being called witches. Carlson-Brown intends to make their appearances and reappearances seem inevitable, underscoring that what is foretold and bound to happen is never out of sight.

Carlson-Brown says he feels influenced by visual effects which he admires in films by famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. They, of course, include Throne of Blood, a transposition of Macbeth. However, in this production there is no intention of such specific boundaries and cultures, but rather a number of different ones, including Elizabethan England and ancient Greek drama. Amazon women warriors may also appear, further fierce females.  

Clearly this Shakespeare story has resonance for all times and places. Hearts tremble eternally due to the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition for those seeking power for its own sake.

You might be interested to know that there was an actual 11th century Macbeth, named in Medieval Gaelic: Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. He had been King of The Scots and fought many battles. Likewise, the drama’s characters have equally real historical names. Becoming legendary by the 14th century, this Macbeth, never deemed a tyrant, died fighting invading English forces led by future King Malcolm III. Shakespeare’s take was derived from Raphael Holinshed’s accounts and seems to have been colored by the playwright’s living in the time of Scottish King James VI who became England’s King James I, a descendant of Malcolm III. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macbeth,_King_of_Scotland

Are Petruchio and Kate based on real people? Well, they may look familiar. The battle of the sexes never ends. Now, of course, women can rule the roost as well as can any cock of the walk. 

The Taming of the Shrew runs June 23-July 10. The Tragedy of Macbeth June 30-July 9. Elmwood Park, south of UNO’s Bell Tower.  8 p.m.  Free. www.nebraskashakespeare.com.


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