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Untamed and Unmastered

A feminist Taming of the Shrew and a surrealist Master & Margarita.

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Women never had it easy in the plays of William Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, the lead female chooses to hide in a morgue for three days rather than enter an arranged marriage with slimy Paris. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena follows her love interest Demetrius into a forest, offering to be his "spaniel." Women are beaten at whim, betrothed in early adolescence, and driven, in desperation, to drown themselves. Considering the sordid fate of Juliet or Ophelia in Hamlet, Shakespeare's most famously unfeminist play, The Taming of the Shrew, should seem like lighter fare. In this case a beautiful but hot-headed woman is "tamed" by the husband who married her in order to snag half her father's estate. She eventually acquiesces, and even takes a shine to her new mate, which makes everything seem, well, kind of okay.

Yet, of all the plays in Shakespeare's oeuvre, this is the one that riled up the Andrea Dworkins of the world. It's not just the sting of the word "shrew"; it's the idea of predestination supplanting free will. In this play, Katherine's spirit has to break so that she can conform to societal norms. Once "tamed," she seems more damaged and vulnerable than other Shakespearian women — even the ones who chose death over complacency.

It doesn't have to be that way, says Erin Merritt, who directed a new Woman's Will production of Taming of the Shrew with an all-female cast. In Merritt's low-tech, high-concept version, Katharine (played by Kate Jopson) and Petruchio (El Beh) seem extremely well matched, aesthetically and temperamentally. Recent UC Berkeley grad Jopson is so pretty and willowy that it's difficult to imagine her as the brat that everyone carps about. But it's Beh who gives the play its powerful sex vibe, besting all the other characters, juicing all the innuendoes, and playing Petruchio as a lovable pain in the ass. Also a Berkeley grad, Beh takes great pleasure in Shakespeare's language, intoning lines in a rumbly baritone and drawing attention to the sexual puns (What, with my tongue in your tail?). Jopson's Katherine appears to fall for her long before the protracted game of bait-and-switch that starts after their wedding night (which is actually pretty funny in this version). The infectious Beryl Baker (as Bianca's suitor Hortensio) and Annamarie MacLeod (playing the gossipy servant Biondello) round out this production.

Contemporary versions of Taming of the Shrew tend to ramp up the sexual tension: The spats between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were really just one long flirtation, and the "taming" part seemed like an afterthought. Merritt took that idea a step further by presenting a butch Petruchio and a femme Katharine, who both seem progressive in their own right: He's skeptical of marriage as an institution; she's struggling to assert her will in a patriarchal society. Thus, the two keep jockeying for position even after she accepts the marriage. Pretending to do right by his new wife, Petruchio finds a way to deny her every creature comfort and basic necessity — he sends back her meals because the meat is too burnt, and won't let her sleep because the bed is too rumpled. But sleep deprivation and low blood sugar aren't enough to domesticate Katharine, who remains peppery while figuring out a way to survive. She accedes to her husband's whims but rolls her eyes at the audience, as though to let us in on the joke. Ultimately, the idea of gender equality outpaces the theme of sexual chemistry, making this Shrew a little more heavy-handed than it needs to be. Still, it's an interesting reinterpretation of the source material. Neither Katharine nor Petruchio gets "tamed," but they do live happily ever after. That's a fitting dénouement, given that both were shrews from the beginning.

However edgy this Woman's Will production, it could never out-edge Four Larks Theatre's adaptation of The Master & Margarita, playing at the Ghost Town Gallery. Based on Mikhail Bulgakov's sardonic 1967 novel, in which the devil pays a surprise visit to the Soviet Union, it's a bizarre, disorienting, and supremely wonderful play. Four Larks set it up so that audience members follow the action through three chambers inan industrial warehouse, where skeletons and gothic birch trees decorate the walls, characters pop through trap doors, and a novelist lies naked in a bathtub, covered in paper.

Four Larks hews to a vaudevillian style of production, which allows each cast member to show the full breadth of his abilities: The poet Ivan (played by Alessandro Rumie) spends most of the show quietly painting a wall, while Koroviev (pianist Mat Sweeney), Strauss (clarinetist Ellen Warkentine), and Schumann (Danny Echevarria) bang away at their instruments. Four Larks uses music to interject, comment on, and sublimate the narrative, requiring all the actors to sing beautiful multipart harmonies. The Master & Margarita never quite becomes a coherent story, but that doesn't matter because the artistry is sublime.

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