Gender Bent and Broken

Jocelyn Kuritsky and Lexi Lapp in Kim Davies’ “Stet.” | BEN STROTHMANN

Jocelyn Kuritsky and Lexi Lapp in Kim Davies’ “Stet.” | BEN STROTHMANN

Rape on campus is much in the news. From the cases at Vanderbilt and the University of Virginia to recent controversies over sentences handed down in rapes at Indiana University and Stanford, it’s a subject that’s fraught with tension. While court proceedings, reactions to them, and protests are widely covered, the emotional and human costs are often obscured.

Digging into those issues is rightly the province of theater, and the new play “Stet,” based on a true story, delves into that with integrity, heart, and balance. Written by Kim Davies, the play concerns the efforts of a magazine writer to uncover the story behind an alleged campus rape and the lives affected by it. Putting the reporter, Erika, at the story’s center allows the play to explore not only those affected by the incident but also the role of the media in covering the story.

Erika is eager to create a cover story for the magazine where she writes. She tells us early on that she is drawn to what can be empirically demonstrated, but is uncomfortable with unproven accusations and conclusions based on mere perceptions. As she digs deeper into the case, however, Erika faces a barrage of conflicting information and confusion that affects her emotionally. Getting to the unquestionable truth, it seems, is virtually impossible.

Davies’ writing is reserved and understated, but its visceral impact on the audience is profound. Most heartbreaking is the lack of any resolution. Davies’ resistance to tying up all the loose ends leaves the audience unsettled, even provoked.

Jocelyn Kuritsky and Jack Fellows in Kim Davies’ “Stet.” | BEN STROTHMANN

Jocelyn Kuritsky and Jack Fellows in Kim Davies’ “Stet.” | BEN STROTHMANN

Tony Speciale, who is also credited with helping develop the piece, directs with a sure, spare hand that enhances its documentary feel. Jocelyn Kuritsky, who also worked on creating “Stet” with Davies and Speciale, is wonderfully staid as Erika, and Bruce McKenzie does a very good job as Phil, the magazine’s editor. Lexi Lapp is focused and compelling as one of the victims, Ashley. Jack Fellows is terrific as Connor, a frat guy who struggles against the society around him. Déa Julien is powerful as Christina, a campus activist. Her cadence and attitude are perfect, and as her story unfolds the performance acquires richness and resonance that are very moving.

This is an important and timely play. It is powerful political theater that’s not heavy-handed, but leaves one aching for everyone involved — the women who are victimized and the culture that permits such things to happen.

How on earth can a director pull off “The Taming of the Shrew” in 2016 by making it be a comedy, rather than, say, theater of cruelty? The play about a woman forced into an arranged marriage and then having her spirit crushed to suit the pleasure of a man seems to celebrate male hegemony in sexual and marital relationships and the diminishment of women to chattel, mere commodities.

“Shrew,” to be sure, remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, known in its original and as the musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” Part of the reason is that the play is so full of comedy, whether in Katherina’s over-the-top, violent courtship and – ultimately quashed – rebellion or in the secondary plot involving various suitors’ antics in seeking the hand of her seemingly more docile and traditional sister Bianca. It can be easy to overlook the darker themes, revel in the comedy, and chalk up the apparent misogyny to the era from which it came.

That perspective, however, misses half the fun — and social criticism — of the play. The story of Petruchio and Katherina is, as Shakespeare wrote it, a play within a play. The rarely performed introduction establishes the theme of role-playing as a human foible; the character Christopher Sly, a tinker convinced he is a lord through a trick played upon him, invites us from the outset to question the veracity of everything unfolding before us. Disguise and dissembling as both manipulation and emotional self-preservation are really the themes of “Shrew.”

Enter director Phyllida Lloyd, who brilliantly answered my initial question in the recent Shakespeare in the Park that turned the play into gloriously effervescent agitprop. Lloyd did away with the introduction, but achieved its end by using an all-female cast. Her framing device was a beauty pageant, with a familiar Trumpian voiceover that set the stage for the women’s objectification and located the piece clearly in 2016. The audience had to constantly confront the illusion of women as men and thereby face their own assumptions about gender roles.

Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo in Shakespeare in the Park’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd. | JOAN MARCUS

Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo in Shakespeare in the Park’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd. | JOAN MARCUS

It was, in a word, fascinating. The swaggering Petruchio, grieving over his father’s recent death and determined to secure his fortune through marriage, runs head on into Katherina, chafing at being forced into an arranged union and having her heart and independence treated as something to be sold. As with Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” when the hard shell is shattered for both, the soft centers are revealed.

The role-playing is not reserved for Kate and Petruchio. Once married, Bianca’s truer and harsher side was revealed, and it was she who was more the Shrew, one more twist in what the audience was led to believe was the “truth.”

In casting all women, Lloyd played marvelously with the roles people assume to achieve their ends and asked us to examine ourselves and consider how the whole idea of a play, as Hamlet says, is to “hold the mirror up to nature.”

That reflection was amplified by an amazing cast and stellar performances. Janet McTeer was a swaggering rock star of a Petruchio, with the gait and cadence of an overly self-confident male that made Petruchio the dazzling centerpiece of Lloyd’s concept. Other standouts included the always-wonderful Donna Lynne Champlin as Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors, and Judy Gold as Gremio, another suitor. Lloyd gave Gold the opportunity to exercise her impressive comedic talents in a sly stand-up routine that was funny but also a not-so-subtle commentary on traditional male humor.

The only exceptions to the gender dichotomy were the female characters. Cush Jumbo was delightful as Katherina — a gorgeous force to be reckoned with. That was fortunate casting, since Gayle Rankin as Bianca almost walked off with the production. She’s a comic spitfire who found every laugh in the role — and then some.

Given the gauzy reverence for Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget that in his day he didn’t shy away from politics or social criticism. Lloyd’s insightful and enchanting production reminded us of that, while delivering a brilliant show.

STET | Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 W. 36th St. | Through Jul. 10 only: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri-Sat at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | $51-$76 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Ninety mins., with no intermission

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