Thursday, September 29, 2011

Putting Powerful Women In Their Place

Male domination is one of the oldest games in town. I'm not talking about role-playing scenes between consenting gay men, but the power structure one sees in a heavily patriarchal civilization. In our supposedly liberated society, it's easy to forget that conservatives who want to move the clock back to the 1950s (or beyond) also want to return it to an era when:
  • Women were supposed to remain barefoot and stay in the kitchen, where they belonged.
  • The power in any relationship (business, social, or marital) was held by the male.
  • The standard belief among men confronted with an obstreperous, disobedient, or (even worse) independent woman was that "All she needs is one good fuck to straighten her out."
All this came to mind recently with the reviews of Ron Suskind's new book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, which reignited an old discussion about how the Obama administration did not give women a fair shake. For those who actually remember, early in the administration some White House personnel complained that they felt women were not being given sufficient weight in the decision-making process. Obama's senior aide, Valerie Jarrett, brought the matter to the President's attention and changes were initiated to correct the situation.

While it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that Suskind's book reflects the situation as it stands today, it's important to keep in mind that Jarrett chairs the recently-created White House Council on Women and Girls, whose executive director is Tina Tchen (Chief of Staff for First Lady Michelle Obama). President Obama has also appointed the following women to very powerful positions in his administration:
Two recent productions by major Bay area arts organizations offered audiences an opportunity to revisit classics that were written in a very different time and culture. One premiered in approximately 1594 (when wives were essentially chattel). The other, written in 1926, was set in ancient China. Taken as a pair, they offer modern audiences a reality check on how far we've come with respect to gender roles.

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Shortly after the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home in Lincoln Center in 1966, I started attending opera on a regular basis. The two works which provoked the most visceral reactions from me where Richard Strauss's searing one-act opera, Elektra, and Giacomo Puccini's last opera, Turandot. The music for each piece was exotic, erotic, and continually fascinating. The choral climaxes in Turandot nearly provoked some adolescent climaxes of a very different nature.

This month, the San Francisco Opera revived its production of Turandot using sets designed by David Hockney with costumes by Ian Falconer. Although this production had been seen here in 1993, 1998, and 2002, this was the first time I had had an opportunity to see Hockney's sets, which fill the stage of the War Memorial Opera House with a very red and rare beauty.

Turandot's character is almost as interesting as Puccini's music. Originally based on a series of Asian tales published in 1710 by the French scholar, Francois Pétis de la Croix, the name "Turandot" was actually an adaptation of the name of Khutulun, a Mongol princess who was also the niece of Kublai Khan. To make the price of marrying Turandot more extreme than merely wagering horses, de la Croix dramatically upped the ante by insisting that any suitor answer three riddles posed by the Princess. Failure to answer correctly resulted in decapitation by a public executioner.

Iréne Theorin stars in Turandot (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

When the opera opens, the crowd in Peking has become as bloodthirsty as the audience at a Republican Presidential Primary debate. With one potential suitor after another meeting his doom, the Prince of Persia is the latest loser headed toward the chopping block. Enter  Calaf (Marco Berti), the ardent young prince of Tartary who, just as he is reunited with his deposed father, Timur (Raymond Aceto) and slave Liù (Leah Crocetto), falls under the intoxicating spell of the unobtainable princess's love.

Calaf (Marco Berti) and Liu (Leah Crocetto) in
Act I of Puccini's Turandot (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Once Turandot (Iréne Theorin) makes her entrance and describes how the spirit of her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, lives within her, it's time for a brief history lesson in male domination. Lo-u-Ling had successfully resisted male dominance until she was raped and murdered by an invading foreign prince. In  revenge for the murder of Lo-u-Ling, Turandot has vowed to never let a man possess her.

In short order, Calaf solves all three riddles.  When the shocked Turandot realizes she's been had, she instantly appeals to her father, the Emperor Altoum (Joseph Frank), for a do-over.

Most audiences focus their concentration on the singers performing the roles of Turandot, Calaf, and Liu. With Nicola Luisotti on the podium, Iréne Theorin, Marco Berti, and Leah Crocetto all delivered extremely strong performances.

As I explained to a friend who had some qualms about Marco Berti's vocal technique, tenors who get cast as Calaf are often chosen for their ability to belt out their music over a huge orchestra.  Loud high notes are their money notes (the equivalent of a porn actor's money shots) and should be taken in the proper perspective.

I was much more impressed with the staging of Act II, Scene I, in which Puccini's three ministers -- Ping (Hyung Yun), Pang (Greg Fedderly), and Pong (Daniel Montenegro) -- ruminate on the situation in Peking and long for their homes in the countryside. In many productions, this scene can become a boring tease as the audience awaits the soprano's rendition of Turandot's big aria, "In questa reggia."

However, thanks to the powerful combination of Supertitles, Hockney's beautifully painted set,  Ian Falconer's magnificent costumes, and the refreshlingly clear stage direction by Garnett Bruce, this scene became the highlight of the performance for me.

Pang (Greg Fedderly), Ping (Hyun Yun), and
Pong (Daniel Montenegro) in Act II of Turandot
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

San Francisco Opera's production of Turandot was broadcast to an audience in AT&T Park last Sunday afternoon at the same time that the Folsom Street Fair was attracting leather fetishists from around the world in one of the city's biggest annual public events. It will be interesting to see how this production of Turandot stands up when the second cast of principals arrives for performances in November.

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One doesn't usually attend a Shakespearean play expecting to see a blonde bombshell strutting across the stage in a gold lamé bathing suit wearing a banner that identifies her as"Miss Padua." Nor would one tell friends that they should really catch a performance of The Taming of the Shrew just to see Bianca's purple platform "Come fuck me" shoes.

But thanks to costume designer Katherine O'Neill and director Shana Cooper, the California Shakespeare Theater's rowdy new production of The Taming of the Shrew could well be marketed with the slogan "Go for Bianca's shoes, stay for the Shakespeare!"

As winner of the Miss Padua contest, Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson)
parades before Gremio (Danny Scheie) and Hortensio (Liam Vincent)
in The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Cooper has done a delicious job of breathing new life into Shakespeare's classic tale of a woman whose intelligence could prevent her from submitting to a braggart husband's commands. There's no doubt that Katherine (Erica Sullivan) is a spitfire -- a fiercely intelligent and highly disagreeable young woman.

But unless her father (Rod Gnapp) can unload Katherine on some poor bastard who's willing to put up with her, Baptista Minola's younger daughter (the dumb, spoiled, pretty princess whose pet pooch is named Troilus) can't get married. With several men in hot pursuit of Bianca, it's no wonder Katherine's rage and resentment grow stronger by the day.

Hortensio (Liam Vincent), Tranio (Dan Clegg),
Gremio (Dannie Scheie), and Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar) in
The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The four men pursuing Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson) are indeed a strange lot:
  • Hortensio (Liam Vincent) is a young man hoping to woo Bianca as his bride while disguising himself as a tutor named Litio.
  • Gremio (Danny Scheie) is an aging suitor who, in this production, is portrayed as a flaming old fop.
  • Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar) is a young student attending the University of Padua who has fallen head over heels for Bianca. To edge out his rivals, he has disguised himself as a Latin tutor named Cambio.
  • Tranio: (Dan Clegg) is Lucentio's servant who is wooing Bianca in his master's place (by doing so, Lucentio can easily gain access to Bianca in the guise of her tutor).

Enter Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) accompanied by his servant, Grumio (Dan Hiatt). An old friend of Hortensio's, Petruchio recently inherited his father's estate and "has come to wive it wealthily in Padua." The horror stories shared by Bianca's suitors about Katherine can't deter him. Petruchio's a really butch guy who likes a challenge.

Kate (Erica Sullivan) taunts Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) in
The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the time Petruchio has struck a bargain with Kate's father, the die is cast. The only question is how to tame the shrew. Petruchio's approach is simple: he'll starve her (literally) for affection and kill her with his perverse style of kindness.

Petruchio (Slate Holmgren) and Kate (Erica Sullivan)
in The Taming of the Shrew (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Working on a two-story set designed by Scott Dougan with sound design engineered by Jake Rodriguez, the energetic cast rips through Shakespeare's text with such merriment that one can't help falling in love with this overly inventive production. Cooper has added numerous twists and turns to provoke laughter, make the audience wince and, at the end of the play, prove that by marrying for money or infatuation, Lucentio and Hortensio have been saddled with the real shrews. 

Holmgren and Sullivan go at each other every ounce of fury in their athletic bodies, receiving sturdy support from Joan Mankin, Theo Black, and Dan Hiatt in a variety of cameos. While Liam Vincent and Nicholas Pelczar have nice moments as two of Bianca's suitors, the hilarious Danny Sheie owns the stage as both Gremio and a tailor. Sheie (who teaches drama at UC Santa Cruz and will appear in the Folger Shakespeare Library's production of The Taming of the Shrew in Washington, D.C. in May of 2012) is a comic genius whose sense of timing is stunning.

By the time Katherine's final solo comes due, the most vehement feminists in the audience may have unclenched their jaws just enough to hear her say:
"I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease."
Kate (Erica Sullivan) kneels before an astonished Baptista (Rod Gnapp),
Hortensio (Liam Vincent) and Gremio (Danny Scheie) as Horatio's
new wife (Joan Mankin) looks on in The Taming of the Shrew
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The Taming of the Shrew continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through October 16. It's a really great show (for which you can order tickets here).

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