In front of a small but engaged audience, tucked away in a community room at the Fern Creek branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, Jon Becraft and Jessica De La Rosa are sitting on a packing trunk and talking about making fun of people and bullying.
“Jokes aren’t jokes when they hurt someone,” De La Rosa informs the audience of children and their families, people who have come out to catch a little bit of theater on a cold but sunny day.
De La Rosa and Becraft say one or two more words on the subject, asking the kids about respect, friendship and self-esteem. Then they jump up and get back to performing “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Nay, come Kate come, you must not look so sour,” says Becraft as Petruchio.
“It is my fashion when I see a crab,” De La Rosa’s Kate responds.
The duo is part of Kentucky Shakespeare’s two-person “Taming of the Shrew,” which is on a multi-week tour of libraries around the city.
Becraft and De La Rosa — officially titled artist educators — go on to deliver all the main plot points of Shakespeare’s classic in under an hour, extracting a large portion of laughs from the kids and adults in the crowd, all the while stopping to ask questions and offer suggestions of what the answers might be.
Kentucky Shakespeare has a long history of touring shows to neighborhoods, as Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, explains to Insider.
“We’re always trying to break down those access barriers,” he says. “Bringing it into the libraries is an effective way to get into the neighborhoods.”
What is perhaps a little surprising is just how head-on this particular production is tackling some of the troubling aspects of “Taming of the Shrew,” a play that involves a man, Petruchio, “taming” a woman named Kate, who is a loudmouth, acid-tongued daughter of a rich merchant.
Conversations are happening in the theater world about the value of classic work and balancing that value against issues and ideas that might seem pretty messed up if one steps back and takes an objective look at the plays. These conversations are happening not just here in Louisville, but on a national and international level as well.
Kentucky Shakespeare’s director of education, Kyle Ware, says the parts of this play that some would see as problem — like a dude trying to “tame” a woman — are actually what makes this show great, especially for kids, who need a way to talk about the way they talk to each other.
“This can be looked at as an opportunity,” says Ware. “You want to lay the groundwork for ‘what is a healthy relationship’ or ‘what is a healthy interaction.’ Sometimes we adults need to be reminded of that as well.”
Still, the question remains, is Shakespeare rooting for Petruchio on his quest to “tame” Kate, or is Shakespeare doing his best to be the 1592 version of a feminist? Even presenting a fully-formed, hilarious woman at the center of a ribald comedy was kind of forward thinking back then.
After the show finished, in between packing up the backdrop and props, Ware muses on thoughts and questions he asked the cast about “Taming of the Shrew.”
“We are, in some cases, the labels that get attributed to us. Is that fair?” asks Ware.
De La Rosa and Becraft have some thoughts on the subject. De La Rosa hones in on Kate and how this question is at the core of the character.
“Did someone else decide Kate was a shrew, and that’s the role she had to play?” asks De La Rosa.
Becraft follows up, relating the idea to how it might affect an artist educator’s core audience — school kids.
“It’s like the kid in school who (the teachers say), ‘Oh, that kid’s the bad kid.’ So then kid is like, ‘I guess I’m the bad kid.’ “
This kind of labeling isn’t quite as evident in this production of “Taming of the Shrew,” at least not in the questions De La Rosa and Becraft asked the kids in the Fern Creek library last Saturday. But the action of the play, and the name of the play itself, almost asks the question for them.
Before the small but mighty cast hopped in their Shakespeare mobile and drove off, De La Rosa succinctly states the tragedy imbedded in labels — they stick.
“Then you never get the opportunity to be anything else,” she says.
As conversations around classics, context and controversies continue, it’s hard to say what “Taming of the Shrew” will get to be in the future. It might get labeled problem, or a learning tool, or maybe both. That label will help determine who and how people see this 400-year-old play.
In the meantime, Kentucky Shakespeare will keep going out to neighborhoods and libraries, and let the play, and their artist educators, keep asking kids tough questions.
They’ll keep asking fun questions, too.
Like, “Did you know Shakespeare invented the word ‘puke’”?
Kentucky Shakespeare’s two-person “Taming of the Shrew” finishes its library tour with a bang on Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Louisville Free Public Library’s main branch, located at 301 York St. The free show runs from 2 to 3 p.m.