’30 Rock’ star leads ‘Taming of Shrew’ at Shakespeare Theatre

April 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — In the 16th century, it was common for all-male casts to perform William Shakespeare masterpieces like “The Taming of the Shrew.”

But in this century, we’ll seen a gender mix on stage and screen: Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison in the Cole Porter’s Tony-winning Broadway musical “Kiss Me, Kate” (1949), Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the Oscar-nominated movie “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967) and Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the high-school romantic comedy spin “Ten Things I Hate About You” (1999).

Now, the concept of an all-male cast returns in “The Taming of the Shrew,” now playing at the beautiful Shakespeare Theatre Company across from Verizon Center now through June 26.

“I think he is a genius,” actor Maulik Pancholy (Jonathan from “30 Rock”) told WTOP during a recent visit to the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center. “It’s a great gift to be able to speak those words. … Every night there are still new things that pop out at me. … With Shakespeare, he is in your body. If you just ride that language, it opens up so much for you. He doesn’t mince words. What he says is the truth.”

Written between 1590 and 1592, Shakespeare’s classic tale follows a romance between bachelor Petruchio (Peter Gadiot) and the stubborn “shrew” Katherina (Pancholy). While she starts off hesitant in the courtship, she is gradually “tamed” into an obedient bride, all while various male suitors compete for the hand of Katherina’s more desirable sister, Bianca (Oliver Thornton).

With such a plot, you can imagine the scholarly critiques calling the play misogynistic, perhaps a reflection of the patriarchal society in which Shakespeare lived. But that’s part of the reason Shakespeare Theatre Company — and other productions — are now stripping away gender roles.

“There’s also an all-female production of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ happening in Central Park in New York City right now,” Pancholy said. “If we remove the equation of gender from the piece, and instead of it being a play about men vs. women or a battle of the sexes, if it can be about … two individual people on a journey, what does that open up? … With an all-male cast, let’s take that piece out of it.”

Even gender politics aside, Pancholy simply loves the character arc.

“She’s one of Shakespeare’s great female roles,” he said. “She’s feisty, angry and envious. She’s got a lot of emotional life that she’s willing to share … and I think she undergoes a pretty transformative journey … I think she learns over the course of the play that she can be whoever she wants to be, and that it probably is a little bit easier to be loving and forgiving than it is to be angry and envious.”

Pancholy said his entry point into the role was a powerful turn of phrase by Shakespeare.

“I have this line that says, ‘My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break,'” he said. “I don’t think that’s a metaphor. … Her heart [literally] can’t hold what she’s feeling.”

Also different from Shakespeare’s era, this show’s music comes from Duncan Sheik, who recently scored Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and “American Psycho.” Of course, most folks will remember him for his ’90s radio hit “Barely Breathing,” which believe it or not is actually woven into the play.

How does this sort of ’90s music fit into Shakespeare?

“You’re just gonna have to come see it,” Pancholy said. “They’re woven-in in a way that hopefully illuminates the character’s journey and things about the play that you might not have thought about.”

The unique music and casting is no surprise from experimental director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar.

“[He’s] been doing a lot of pretty experimental or off-the-wall theatre in New York,” Pancholy said. “The last thing he did was like a five-hour production based on The Bible [with] multiple playwrights and a cast of 50 and dinner in the middle of it. So he’s been really pushing the envelope with theatre and been really curious about how you make an audience more part of the theatre experience.”

Speaking of making things interactive for the audience — behold, WTOP’s early experiments with using Facebook Live! Watch the full in-studio interview with Maulik Pancholy in the video below:

April 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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