On a Wednesday evening when most people are leaving work and unwinding at home or with friends, the cast of Theater in the Rough, Jerusalem’s popular English-speaking Shakespeare company, gathers in Bloomfield Gardens for a night of rehearsal for their summer show, The Taming of the Shrew.
They gather together and for a few minutes talk about the day they had before beginning to warm up for rehearsal. Park-goers stop a minute to watch the cast as they lie flat out on their backs, reciting their monologues. One young boy even copies them for a minute. Then they circle up and start practicing their lines, pausing to analyze the deeper meaning of a monologue or help a fellow actor work on their intonation of a certain phrase.
They choose to rehearse in the park because it literally brings the play to life, acting alongside families having picnics and parties.
Company founder Beth Steinberg and the rest of the troupe of amateur Jerusalem-area actors of various ages want Shakespeare to be understood and enjoyed by everyone, and feed off of the communal atmosphere to make that happen.
But furthermore, they want people to understand and think more about the society they live in. For Steinberg, that meant addressing this past US election.
“Whatever anyone felt about the US election this year, it definitely exposed to me as a woman that misogyny is alive and well,” said Steinberg, who immigrated to Israel from the US in 2006 with her family.
“Even if you didn’t like [Hillary Clinton] people seemed like they could only speak about her in the most rancorous ways and it made me think about Shrew, which holds to this Elizabethan era ‘ideal wife.’” The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy that tells the story of Petruchio, who persuades the “shrewish” Katherine to marry him and then for the rest of the play works on “taming her” to be the ideal, obedient wife. In the meantime, three different men are pursuing Katherine’s sister, Bianca, who is viewed as the ideal woman. In this production, Bianca and Katherine are played by men, and most of the other roles are played by women.
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“I think switching the genders shows how it would feel for a man to be treated like a woman is and a man to be treated how a woman is,” said Miriam Metzinger, who plays Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors.
Robin Stamler, who plays Bianca, has enjoyed exploring a normally female role, and has tried to understand how a woman would feel and act in Bianca’s situation.
“I don’t think it’s a submissive role, I think she’s got a lot of power actually. I’m a bit of a flirt, and don’t have to suffer like Katherine does,” he joked. As an afterthought, he added: “Well, until the end.”
Many people, from Theater in the Rough cast members to critics around the world, disagree on whether Shakespeare really wrote a misogynistic play or if it was intended as satire. Steinberg wishes to present the show as it was made, hoping audience members will leave thinking about it and thinking about the larger societal issue.
“The speech exists,” she said, referencing a final monologue instructing women to be obedient to their masters (i.e., their husbands).
“We have to be willing to hear it and think about it.”
But most importantly, Steinberg and the rest of the company hope that people come and have a good time in the park. They want people to understand that Shakespeare is not the dull and hard-to-understand stories that they read in high school, but alive with emotion, tragedy and humor.
“It’s really amazing to be here and see people gather in the park and to feel like a part of summer.”
Steinberg, who was honored this year with a Bonei Zion prize for her work with Shutaf inclusion programs, founded Theater in the Rough seven years ago, and many of her family members, including her husband, Ira, and two of her sons are regular actors in the productions.
Over the years, the cast has learned to improvise with whatever comes their way, as they perform throughout different areas of the park and cannot block any of it off.
But this only adds to the magic, according to Stamler. The actors’ ability to have fun with each other, the park and the audience, sets this group apart from other Shakespeare groups and brings the script alive in a new way.
“I think it comes alive in the park,” said Metzinger. “My son spoke almost no English and the Shakespeare play he came to here last summer [Macbeth] was the first English play he’d been to and he loved it. I think because he felt like he was part of the action.”
While they primarily attract English speakers, the group’s Hebrew-speaking audience is also growing. They don’t have to understand every word, said Steinberg, to understand the story and to laugh and cry with the characters. They don’t even have to understand the historical English background of some of the plays they have put on.
“A lot of haredi [ultra-Orthodox] people will watch the rehearsals, and when we were doing Richard III [in 2013] one family asked me, what is this?” recounted Andrea Katz, who plays Baptista, the father of Katherina and Bianca. “And they don’t know English history, the War of the Roses, so I started explaining about King Herod and his family and how he kills everyone and the kids got so excited.”
It’s these universal themes found throughout Shakespeare’s works that cause him to be revisited again and again, Steinberg thinks, and what has made Theater in the Rough a staple part of the cultural growth of Jerusalem.
The Taming of the Shrew: in motion debuts on August 10 in Bloomfield Gardens, and will be performed August 13-15, 17, 20, 22-24. Performances are at 5:30 p.m.
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