Utah Festival Opera part one: Kiss Me Kate

This weekend, my wife and I went up to Logan to the Utah Festival Opera.  Michael Ballam runs the UFO, and he’s an old friend of our family, and was kind enough to arrange seats for us.  They lovingly restored a beautiful old theater, and every summer they perform a selection of operas and musicals.  I would have loved to have seen their Tosca or Faust, but couldn’t make the schedule work–instead, we saw Kiss Me Kate and My Fair Lady.  Both starred Michael’s daughter Vanessa, who we also know, and who is terrific, a wonderfully charismatic and engaging actress.  I plan to review My Fair Lady tomorrow. 

Kiss Me Kate is one of my wife’s favorite shows.  She knows the movie well–watched it all the time with her mom and sisters growing up.  I’ve seen it once before, but don’t know it well at all.  It’s a lot of fun.  The premise: a struggling theatre company is doing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, produced and directed by Fred Graham, who will also play Petruchio.  His ex-wife, Lili Vanessi is cast as Katherine–we know from the outset they’re going to end up together.  I mean, it’s a musical.  Also in the cast, Lois Lane/Bianca, and her boyfriend Bill/Lucentio. I don’t have my program with me, can’t give you their names, but I thought they were all great.

Okay, like I said, I don’t know this musical well, but it’s Cole Porter, and I love Cole Porter.  So clever, so wickedly subversive.  Couple of points: my wife and I are old enough to have a son who turns thirty this year.  We were also about the youngest people in the theater, by twenty years.  Second point: There was a repeated joke in the production regarding the word ‘bastard.’  Someone would start to say it– ‘bast . . ‘ — and a sound effect–a horn, a buzzer– would interrupt the second half of the word. I don’t know if this is written in the script, or a directing choice for this production.

In the world of Critical Theory, one important tenet is the decentered author.  Texts are not produced by an ‘author,’ but by impersonal forces within a culture.  This is, of course, silly.  Most High Theory is amazingly silly.  (I’m not a scholar anymore, I’m retired, I can say that).  Basically, it’s just a preposterously hyperbolic way of saying ‘writers are influenced by the culture they came from.’  But Kiss Me Kate in Logan could serve as exhibit A for anyone arguing for Barthes and the absent author.  For Theory. 

Because Kiss Me Kate–the show, the script, the text, not necessarily the production in Logan, which was exceptionally well done–is sexist in a way that I found quite amazing.  It’s not just that The Taming of the Shrew is about physically ‘taming’ a tough and independent young woman, and that Kiss Me Kate is about The Taming of the Shrew.  It’s not just the sight gag built on the idea that Lili/Kate has been spanked on stage hard enough that she can’t sit down without a pillow–which Fred pulls out before she can sit on it, leading to the ‘excruciating butt pain’ bit–quite the rib-tickler, that one.  You could (barely) make the case that she hits him as often as he hits her.  But she’s infantilized in every scene.  Lili’s a proven actress, a professional, an intelligent and charming woman who, we’re told, mixes easily in Washington D.C. society.  But Fred has no difficulty convincing her Senator beau that when she says “I’m being held captive against my will,” she’s just overreacting, you know, the way dumb broads tend to do. 

So who ‘wrote’ this text?  Cole Porter?  Or the gender expectations of the late 1940’s?  (It opened in 1948, which makes sense–five years earlier, and I rather think Rosie the Riveter and  her sisters wouldn’t have sat still for it.) 

But what I found truly, truly astounding, are how wicked, how naughty it is.

Remember, this is a production in which they wouldn’t say ‘bastard.’  Too offensive, that word.  And I think it’s quite possible that some members of that audience, in Logan, probably would have found ‘bastard’ troubling.  But. . . take this song: “Too darn hot.”  Okay, it starts off the second act, it’s sung by one minor character, joined by the chorus. Point of the song: it’s very hot outside.  Too hot, in fact, to have sex.  Sings the character: “I’d like to sup with my baby tonight, and play the pup with my baby tonight” but it’s too hot.  “I’d like to stop for my baby tonight, and blow my top with my baby tonight, but I’d be a flop with my baby tonight” because of the excessive amount of heat.  Over and over again, that sentiment is expressed: the character would love to indulge in wildly tantric, Kama sutric, acrobatic sexual relations, but, alas, for the temperature. Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

That’s one of the things Cole Porter does. He writes songs that establish a premise, which he then repeats over and over, our pleasure deriving from the cleverness of his lyrics.  So the song “Always True to you in my fashion”, sung by Lois/Bianca.  The entire song involves her saying that she’d like to stay faithful to her boyfriend, but there are a number of categories of men she’d like to have sex with first, in part because of the presents they give her.  I’m not kidding.  That’s the entire song.  And don’t get me started on “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”; a series of double-entendres on every Shakespeare title that can be made to sound dirty.

Was I offended by any of this?  Not remotely.  Of course not. I loved it.  I enjoy salacious wit, I love double-entendres, I love subversive jokes and naughty humor.  I especially love it all when it’s performed with the kind of energetic gusto the Logan company brought to bear.  I love Cole Porter’s music, all those delicious half-steps.  I think “So in Love” is one of the great love songs.   

I just think it’s kind of weird.  All that Victorian old maid reticence over ‘bastard,’ followed by wink wink nod nod jab to the ribs sexual humor. All that brutal swaggering sexism, followed by Bianca’s frank sexual liberation–at least, she’s as liberated as any ‘ho.  I found the entire experience very strange.  I laughed a lot, too, and then went home and listened to a lot of Cole Porter, and enjoyed his open sophistication very much.  How sexist is the show; how seriously should we take it; how much does Porter undercut it, how much did this production deconstruct it? A lot, some, some, and I’m not sure.  And then the next day we went back and saw a show twenty times worse.

2 thoughts on “Utah Festival Opera part one: Kiss Me Kate

  1. Braden

    I suppose that the double entendres provide plausible deniability, and, for people like my grandmother who truly did not get them, the ability to enjoy something on one level while other patrons appreciate them on quite another.

    Saw this on Broadway a few years ago with Marin Mazie and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The way it was interpreted, the subtext and so on, made it actually quite palatable in terms of the sexism issue. It reinforced my belief that a good actor and director can truly interpret any text to mean anything they want.

    I will say that the Bway version of Brush Up Your Shakespeare disappointed me because it was one un-ending double entrendre, not too subtly done. It became a basically one-gag song, which is shame since the words are really some of his cleverest, I think. I grant that there is a ribald, sexual element there for sure but playing every line as a double entendre sort of weakened it.

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  2. Marianne Hales Harding

    I was thinking the same thing! I left with the feeling that it was a somewhat charming way to spend an afternoon (minus the part where I grit my teeth about the blatant sexism) but not a show I would put on my list of things I’m desperate to see again.

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