This year San Francisco Shakespeare Festival is performing "The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare's oft-maligned comedy. Artistic director Rebecca J. Ennals admits it gives her pause: Is it a feminist rallying cry, a sexist throwback, or maybe, like most things in Shakespeare, a bit of both?
"The fact is, this is a sexist play. It's also not a sexist play, but one that subverts its own genre," Ennals wrote in her blog at sfshakes.wordpress.com. "Understanding and appreciating Shakespeare, to me, means being able to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time."
As the story unfolds, the audience will experience outrageous clowning, witty wordplay and crazy plot twists as Kate and Petruchio negotiate their surprisingly modern relationship.
"I hope to find in Katherina a damaged proto-feminist, and in Petruchio a reformed misogynist turned male ally — two prickly outsiders finding their way to each other in a culture full of gender-based expectations," wrote Ennals.
"And, of course, I want it to be very, very funny. All this must be grounded in the text — we must find it there, because at the end of the day we want to do the play Shakespeare wrote."
Pleasanton is the first stop of the five venues for Free Shakespeare in the Park this summer.
"It's exciting. We get to see it first, and all the local theater critics will come to the Pleasanton show," said Pleasanton theater supervisor Rob Vogt. "Everyone in the city looks forward to the production."
The city has tried different locations throughout the years but Vogt said it has now settled on Amador Valley Community Park, behind the aquatics center. This location also has a lot of parking, he noted.
Each performance will be preceded by a 15-minute Green Show featuring the Intern Company, which provides background on the play and Shakespeare's world in an entertaining and family-friendly format.
"It's a great family event," Vogt said. "You bring the entire family and sit down for a relaxing evening on the grass. You can have a picnic dinner together and watch some live theater."
"It's always a quality show," he continued. "Every production has three or four Equity (Association), professional actors. They're always topnotch."
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's mission is to make the words and themes of Shakespeare available to everyone, and its Free Shakespeare in the Park helps to accomplish this, along with its many education programs. It also holds summer camps for different age groups.
Each Free Shakespeare in the Park performance in Pleasanton averages about 700 patrons, Vogt said. Some people return each year, and others come from throughout the Bay Area because the Pleasanton dates are best for them.
After Pleasanton, the production goes to Cupertino's Memorial Park Amphitheater; the grounds of Sequoia High School in Redwood City; and the parade ground lawn at the San Francisco Presidio. It wraps up with a one-weekend run, Sept. 20-21, in the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater at San Francisco's McLaren Park.
Last year, the troupe performed "Macbeth," which also proved to be enjoyable for families, Vogt said.
"Shakespeare has comedic interludes even in his tragedies," he explained.
Vogt noted that it can get cold after sunset, even in the summertime, but watching Shakespeare under the stars can be exhilarating. Bring blankets and chairs to get comfortable on the grass and layers of clothing, he recommended.
"There's something fun about watching theater outdoors, especially Shakespeare because that's more to the true environment where it was performed," Vogt said. "Not necessarily outdoors, but the old Globe Theater was open to the sky."
"Come enjoy a great evening of professional theater with your family," he added. "This one is a comedy so it will definitely be more interesting to the younger patrons."
And it will be interesting to see how director Ennals handles "The Shrew," believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592.
"From the moment when we decided to produce this controversial comedy, I have immersed myself in research of past productions, arguments for and against the play, and my own concerns about how to present it," she wrote. "With this production, I want to reclaim the word 'shrew' and tackle the issues of female dis-empowerment in the play head-on."