Los Descamisados

Yesterday, I saw a musical at Stratford starring Chilina Kennedy as a crass but ambitious showgirl shamelessly sleeping her way to the top, a musical containing the famous scene in which the workers, oppressed by the heat and frustrated by the endless bickering of the bosses, pull off their shirts and vent their frustrations in song.

I’m referring, of course, to Kiss Me, Kate.

There are any number of reasons to see this production, in spite of a variety of reservations that I have about it, but somewhere high on the list has to be that they have no intention of waiting until “Too Darn Hot” comes around to take off their clothes. Much of the cast spends much of the play in various states of undress, and Chilina Kennedy in particular doesn’t appear to have been given a complete costume at all – and the scraps that have been provided are dropped repeatedly with no provocation. That’s reason enough to go right there.

Kiss Me, Kate has never been my favorite among the classic musicals. It has its virtues, of course. The music is gorgeous, a cavalcade of standards, and the lyrics deliciously naughty. And the book is packed with zingers that still zing. But, for me, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

A large part of my objection is structural. We know from the instant that Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi show up that they will inevitably wind up together. Within the first twenty minutes, we know she still loves him, even after all he did to her (and she to him). So: something’s going to keep them apart (a letter intended for Lois delivered to Lilli) and something’s going to finally bring them together. And when we hear Lilli’s big final song, we . . . well, we have no idea what it is, because whatever it is happened off stage. What we get is Shakespeare’s wonderfully over-the-top ode to wifely obedience, sung to a tune that almost makes you forget the absurdity of the text – and the exceptional absurdity in the mouth of Lilli Vanessi. But how she came to want to sing such words, and mean them? We’ll just have to guess.

And then there’s the Shakespeare “issue.” Adaptations of Shakespeare necessarily take liberties with the original – they should, or they’d never work. West Side Story makes a great deal more of the feud than of the love story that is at the center of Romeo and Juliet, with wide-ranging repercussions for both Romeo’s and Juliet’s characters. My Own Private Idaho is a take on the story of Falstaff and Hal told from the perspective of an invented character who is half Poins and half Falstaff’s boy page from Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. Naturally enough, Hal lacks the complexity of Shakespeare’s creation, and the movie takes Falstaff’s side completely; naturally as well, the entire political plot drops out of view. But both of these works are true to their source material even as they necessarily change it. I don’t really feel the same way about Kiss Me, Kate and The Taming of the Shrew. The Shakespeare we are given in the play-within-a-play – and we get quite a bit of it – is not merely generic (as, say, the Hamlet presented in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead must be) but caricatured, and the heart of the show is cut out, because it is impossible to believe that the Petruchio who appears in Kate actually loves his Katherine, and without that love the play is simply monstrous. Of course, the play-within-a-play doesn’t really matter except as a vehicle for Fred and Lilli to express their own true feelings – but that’s the point. I can see how the actual Shrew might bring these two together. But this farce?

I can buy, of course, that work brings them together, in spite of everything. I’ve seen, and loved, His Girl Friday. But I need to see it, as I do in that film, and in Cole Porter’s musical I just don’t. Whereas The Taming of the Shrew appears to be a nasty story that actually has a deeply loving heart, Kiss Me, Kate appears to be a classic love story in the “comedy of remarriage” mode, but its heart is cold.

This year’s production is true to the actual nature of this musical, and that is its achievement and its biggest problem. The musical itself butchers the Shrew – so this production butchers it further, putting on an absurdly bad production, in costumes that are a parody of Beauty and the Beast, with actors missing their cues, mugging shamelessly, mangling the verse in accents last heard in a summer stock production of Guys and Dolls and, in one case, forgetting to take off his work gloves before going on stage. The big “turns” in the lives of the principals – particularly Lilli’s decision to return – happen offstage? Well, let’s stage nearly all of the arguments between the principals offstage – what you’ll see onstage, as often as not, is a crowd of backstage types and actors in minor roles rushing from one end of the stage to the other to hear the offstage argument. Doyle takes it so far as to have Chilina Kennedy’s Lois Lane shout the chorus of “Always True To You In My Fashion” to Mike Jackson’s Bill Calhoun, who keeps stalking off into the wings or the voms. The “outer” story – the story of Lilli and Fred – doesn’t actually come to climax and resolve – it just ends? Okay: in this production, the “inner” story – the play Fred Graham is desperately trying to put on in the face of absurd obstacles – won;t end either. Once Lilli’s man of destiny arrives, she never gets back on stage, and neither does anybody else – the final number is, inexplicably, delivered backstage, in civvies, and everybody packs up and goes. She’s come back to Fred, supposedly because she can’t actually leave the theatre, but she’s too late to save this show, so where are they going now? Well, isn’t that what we ought to be wondering, given that we never actually see what turns her around?

John Doyle has basically underlined everything that doesn’t work about Kate in thick marker, so that it absolutely can’t be missed, and said: okay, now what do we do? Well, this is the backstage musical par excellence, and what Doyle has done is shift focus away from the principals and their unconvincing love stories and onto all the little people who make the show actually happen: the stagehands and dressers and all the rest. They are the animating spirit of the opening number (or, rather, the opening opening number – the play-within-a-play has to get its own, far inferior opener), and they, collectively, are the real star of this production, and the question of the play is: what’s in it for them? And the answer turns out to be, mostly: they want to be part of the show, and the behavior of the stars backstage is as much “the show” as what’s going on onstage.

Their avatar is a backstage type of unclear function who winds up onstage for most of the play-within-a-play scenes, but not in costume, and not obviously playing a specific part. In one number, I caught him mouthing all the words to the song that Petruchio is singing, not remotely paying attention to the fact that he’s onstage and supposed to be in some kind of character (what that might be I have no idea), he’s so enraptured merely to be there, to be part of what’s happening. It’s actually quite marvelous – and the role is played marvelously by Jordan Bell. When I saw him doing that, I thought: okay: that’s the play, at least in this production. It’s not about Shrew and it’s not about love and it’s not about these showbiz characters. It’s about the theatre itself, and the incredible allure it has for people, even in productions that are terrible, as the Shrew these people are putting on is.

Where this concept works, then, it works extremely well. So many of the minor roles – Kyle Golemba as Gremio, Jaz Sealey as Hortensio, Josh Young as Paul, even some of the “also appearing” folks – are played as actual characters, not merely as scenery. The gangsters, played by Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders, steal the show, as they inevitably do, but it seems exceptionally fitting that they do so in this production since even before they show up scenes in the Shrew are being stolen by folks who don’t even belong onstage. Where it doesn’t work is where the show is weak to begin with. Fred Graham is played and sung with gusto by Juan Chioran, and Lilli Vanessi with excellent comic timing by Monique Lund (who brought the house down by slinking off the stage on her back like a cartoon animal that had been flattened by a falling safe). But do I believe in these characters? Not really. I believe in Hattie the dressmaker, but Lilli and Fred are just putting on a show. Indeed, given the appalling quality of the play Fred is producing, and the utter lack of glamour (or ability to attract an audience) that Lilli manifests, I can’t really believe that they are in any way who they say they are. Mike Jackson has one really lovely moment as Bill Calhoun, playing the line “even Sanka, Bianca, for you” from his dreadful love song as an allusion to his gambling problem. But the only one of the four principals who reaches out and grabs us by the throat is Chilina Kennedy as Lois Lane – and she does this not just by prancing about in her scanties but by committing herself absolutely to her character, missing no opportunity for shameless self-promotion.

So what’s my recommendation? Personally, I enjoyed the ride. I better have, because I’ve now seen it three times. We keep going back because Kiss Me, Kate is running neck-and-neck with Peter Pan as my son’s favorite show this season.