‘Kiss Me, Kate’ brings classic era to modern audiences

Kiss+Me+Kate

Kiss Me Kate

Alex Kamczyc

The golden age of Broadway comes to campus this weekend, thanks to months of preparation by Kent State students.

“Kiss Me, Kate,” the School of Theatre and Dance’s first production of the semester, opens Friday with a showcase of a new interpretation of the 1948 musical.

Guest director Dennis Courtney led the production process. The New York-based director — who is also a former figure skater — has directed and choreographed more than 150 shows, including “Peter Pan,” “The Last Five Years” and an award-winning run of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I’m always drawn to projects that challenge us as human beings or say a lot about the human condition,” Courtney said at the Director Speaks event held last Tuesday. “If it doesn’t touch me as a human being, I tend to not be interested.”

“Kiss Me, Kate” is set in the ’40s, and it exists as a play-within-a-play; the characters are part of a theater troupe performing William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The relationships and interactions between the characters mirror that of the Shakespearean classic.

“I like the vulnerability of each of the characters. They all have a moment where they bare themselves on stage,” said Elizabeth Woodard, a senior theatre studies major who plays the lead character, Lilli. “We all have shields and armor to make it through the day, but who is worth bringing it down for? That’s what fascinates me about this show.”

Students started rehearsing the music for the play before winter break started, practicing the numbers and arrangements that make up the show. For the actors, that was just the beginning.

“I did an incredible amount of paperwork and research over Christmas break,” Woodard said. “I wrote down everything I had in mind for my character and then tested my ideas out in rehearsal.”

They started rehearsals once the semester began, meeting at 6:30 p.m. almost every day until the late evening. For the team, the most demanding aspect of the show proved to be the dance numbers — one of which is 12 minutes long.

“I think (audiences) are going to be really impressed with the choreography,” said Stephen Cramer, a graduate theatre studies major who plays the other lead role of Fred. “These guys worked really hard on the dance numbers and I think the audience will come away with a sense of ‘wow’ with it.”

Since the show follows the production of another play, the actors essentially had to master two characters: the ones belonging to “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“It’s a very difficult piece to do,” Courtney said. “You have to be an actor who can do both contemporary and Shakespeare. You also have to be a singer who can handle a multitude of styles, from big band sound to opera.”

This dabbling in Shakespearean acting won’t be the end for students this semester; the School of Theatre and Dance will take on a stripped-down performance of “Macbeth” in April.

“Kiss Me, Kate” won the first ever Tony award given for best musical in 1949, as well as four others. The show has also received its fair share of criticism as some believe the play is sexist.

“I think the way the characters are written, it’s more of a commentary on misogyny,” Cramer said. “I don’t think this play advocates in any way that kind of behavior.”

The play also has come under fire for its songs. “I am Ashamed that Women are so Simple,” sang by the female lead, is accompanied by a monologue on how women are happiest when they submit to their husbands.

“Historically, that was the time period,” Woodard said. “That’s why I love Lilli so much; she is cunning and wise. At the end (of the song) she gives Lois a wink to show that she’s still in control and she has not actually relinquished any of her power.”

Despite the claims of sexism and misogyny in the show, the performance is unaltered and will be performed as written.

“We’re not afraid of offending anybody. It was a misogynistic time when the play was written and we can’t pretend that it wasn’t,” Courtney said. “If we try to put a gloss on it or we winked at it or we went, ‘Oh, we don’t really mean this,’ I think that would be more offensive than actually presenting something in its time.”

Courtney did, however, set out to make the nearly 70-year-old musical more palatable for today’s theatergoers.

“My concept was to make it very accessible and entertaining for a modern audience,” Courtney said. “It’s important to keep the show for our audience, which means it has to be faster paced (and) it has to have arrangements which are much more exciting.”

The production team is focused on making sure every loose end is tied and perfected for showtime Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the E. Turner Stump Theatre.

“I think that we’re at a critical point in our world that the arts need to be honored more for the part that they play in our society,” Courtney said. “That’s why I think that’s why people need to come see this: to see young people giving their souls to an art form.”

Alex Kamczyc is the arts reporter, contact him at [email protected]