With an all-male cast, director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's interpretation of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" is far from tame.
Staged by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., the play follows an Italian family and its two daughters' suitors. Fascinated by the elder daughter Katherina's closing speech — in which she finishes her submissive transformation and "is tamed" — Iskandar chose the play to explore the theme of the "other."
"Many characters were othered by either race or gender or class or education and privilege or sexuality, and so Kate became this sort of metaphor for 'the other' in a much more complete way," Iskander told NBC News.
In addition to examining the "other," Iskandar said another reason he wanted to produce the play was that the society Shakespeare set his work in still resonates with today's audiences, with many of the same issued in the play present in day-to-day life.
"I think the reason 'The Taming of the Shrew' is so disturbing to people is because there are so many things in it that we still feel exist," he said. "This is still a world that has to deal with all those issues. So yeah, thinking about these plays as a metaphor for the world we live in is exactly why not only Shakespeare is worth doing but it's also time for us to really grapple with the vision of Shakespeare and who gets to be in a Shakespeare play on stage."
When it came to casting, Iskandar recalled his own life experiences. Born in Indonesia's Chinese community, the director grew up in England watching Shakespeare plays with nearly all-white casts. "I can't remember growing up seeing an Asian leading character," Iskander said. "And I don't even mean that I should be making these characters Asian. I just mean why couldn't I see a Hamlet played by a great actor who just happens to be Asian? And it's still something we still struggle with today."
He was thrilled when he serendipitously cast three Asian actors in leading roles. Maulik Pancholy, known for his roles in "Weeds" and "30 Rock," plays Katherina; Telly Leung, who recently performed with George Takei in the Broadway run of "Allegiance," portrays Lucentio, Katherina's sister's suitor; and Bernard White plays Baptista, the sisters' father.
While one of the themes Iskandar explores is the "other," another is the economics and commoditization of love, as Katherina's marriage is one arranged by her family. Before the play, audiences can explore an Italian piazza marketplace set up in the theater's lobby, where local vendors and artisans have set up shop, and where the show's cast will wander. Iskander hopes the extra interaction enhances the audience's experience.
"I hope every single audience member will be able to walk away from this feeling as if, A, they were connected to something that happened on stage, but, B, there was a part of their individuality that was represented, whatever uniqueness that it is," Iskandar said. "I can't make the claim that I've covered it all, but there's a larger spectrum of types on stage than one normally encounters, and I hope that creates at least the possibility that we can start asking that of what we do on stage and that audiences understand they can start asking that in the kind of theater they watch and go to and patronize."