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A queer spin on The Taming of the Shrew hits Toronto

Play is set in 1989 Toronto during Pride

Driftwood Theatre Group’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew stands out for its inclusion of flushed out queer storylines and characters. Credit: Dahlia Katz

While Shakespearean plays have long been favourites of many in the queer community, and drag very commonplace in these performances, it’s not often we see flushed out queer characters and storylines. That’s why Driftwood Theatre Group’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew immediately stands out.

A controversial comedy because of its misogynistic themes, this version of the play is set in Toronto in 1989 during Pride and features three queer characters and several Church-Wellesley Village locations.  

“The ’80s were a great time of advancement in many, many ways,” says D Jeremy Smith, the play’s director and Driftwood’s founder. “Toronto in particular came to me after I found out that in 1989 the theme of Pride that year was Vision 20/20. So the idea of looking back 20 years to the Stonewall riots and the 20th anniversary of Pride at the time as a means of gauging how far we’ve come.”

In this adaptation, Lucentio, Bianca and Tranio are all queer. And though Lucentio is played by a woman, the character is gender-fluid.

“We did not want to present, necessarily, Lucentio as a particular gender,” says Smith, who explains that the only time the character does present as male is when they are disguised as the tutor Cambio. “But within the structure of the rest of the play, we’ve removed all gender-identifying pronouns for that character.”

“The way that I decided to frame the character is that they’re not someone who prior would have decided, ‘I’m a lesbian,’ for example, or ‘I’m anything,’” says Fiona Sauder, who plays Lucentio. “Lucentio is not sure who they are going to love and who will be the person to fill their heart and is really not focused on it until they happen to stumble upon a person who steals them away.”

That person is Bianca, played by Tahirih Vejdani.

“Going into it, I always knew that this is someone who is discovering love for the first time. Whether it be towards a male or a female, it didn’t really matter,” says Vejdani. “It didn’t necessarily change how she responded to it, but it changed the stakes of the situation within the family and within the context of the play.”

The stakes are most certainly higher, with the queer nature of this relationship inviting a larger conversation in regards to Lucentio’s need to woo and marry Bianca in secret.

Of course, these two wouldn’t have been able to actually get married in 1989. Smith decided to exclude the priest from the wedding scene. To him, that scene speaks to the private ceremonies some couples chose to have at that time and it foreshadows what was to come.

Paolo Santalucia, whom Smith had worked with before, plays Tranio. Smith says he had a special reason for casting him. “Paolo is a gay man and I said, ‘I wanted you to be able to bring that part of yourself to this role.’”

Driftwood will be performing The Taming of the Shrew in 28 outdoor locations across Ontario in just 39 days. Smith is sure the play will be well received in all of the towns it visits.

“The kind of people that are going to come to see this production I believe to be more open in their mindset, in their worldview. But that’s not to say that I don’t think some of this will be challenging to some of them. I suppose I just feel that it’s 2016. I think it’s time to be challenging.”