The West Philly-based nonprofit Shakespeare in Clark Park theater company has tackled the English language’s boldest and richest works with community as its mission, and the immense talent of local theater-making as its engine.
Artistic Director Kittson O’Neill’s inspired choice of William Shakespeare plays to perform, therefore, don’t come with the usual classical leanings. Shakespeare in Clark Park is happily off-kilter and always willing to turn The Bard on its head with a twist. The best and most recent example comes with this week’s (July 27-31) double-header: Two plays performed nightly at 7 p.m., featuring Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ directed by Kathryn MacMillan, then its sequel, ‘The Tamer Tamed’, regarded to have been written by poet-playwright John Fletcher in 1594. Now, directed by Ang Bey and adapted by Charlotte Northeast, ‘The Tamer Tamed’ features professional actors and West Philly community members tackling the Shakespearian roles in present day patois.
“As an actor, I’ve always been holistic as a collaborator,” says Bey. “I want to have thoughtful discussions about the script, what the playwright has planned, having that birds eye view. Directing is about having a vision – walking into a room, being generous and collaborative enough to share that vision and tell a story.”
For her directorial debut through Shakespeare in Clark Park, that vision is extended to trained thespians and West Philly community members, some new to acting and the theater process as a whole.
“This has made for a more multi-faceted experience for me as a director and as a teaching artist,” says Bey.
Also, as what she describes as being a “mission statement-oriented artist,” Bey sees it as her goal to focus her vision on marginalized voices, in particular, Black voices, within the community. “With ‘The Tamer Tamed’, we have a very diverse cast, and Shakespeare in Clark Park was very amenable to that.”
“Ang is a generous and creative collaborator,” says O’Neill of Bey, an artist she welcomed into the company in 2018 starting with ‘Twelfth Night’.
For Bey, before ‘Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare was something of a barrier, and not a playwright on her radar until auditioning for that 2018 production.
“Then, I didn’t think Shakespeare was for me, that I needed a personal invitation. So, the selling point of Shakespeare in Clark Park is doing this in West Philadelphia with its community members. I want to show West Philly back to itself in a really genuine way. “
The 90s in West Philadelphia is the backdrop for Bey’s re-imagined vision and for an aged John Fletcher script adapted by local playwright Charlotte Northeast. Bey and O’Neill talk about how Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is a radically sexist and misogynistic work, unimaginable to be performed in 2022, or as Clark Park’s Artistic Director says, “a problematic play… it is also really funny…. and worth having a difficult conversation around regarding questions about power and the allure of the patriarchy, even for women.”
“It is an important point to make by doing these two shows back-to-back,” adds Bey. “Some of what Shakespeare says, especially in those last monologues, are tough on contemporary ears. ‘The Tamer Tamed’, too, has lines that do not ring beautifully to the contemporary ear. But what I hope you will walk away from the entire Taming evening feeling is like: How complicit am I as an audience member in the patriarchy and what can I do to undo these systems to liberate everyone? Men suffer under patriarchy. Trans people, women, people of color suffer under the patriarchy. Because they are both funny, what Kathryn and I are doing is having a conversation between these two plays in an organic way.”