St. Lou Fringe Review: Shakespeare’s Women or the Bard’s Broads

St. Lou Fringe  is here and perfectly full of the energy of hundreds of theatre people ready for a weekend of weird and wonderful short plays.  Last night, I attended the first performance of Shakespeare’s Women or The Bard’s Broads, produced by because why not? theatre co.

When the evening started with a charming, already-exhausted, Fringe staffer introducing the wrong play, then being corrected by the show’s friendly and understanding stage manager, which brought laughter by the small but jovial audience, and the woman beside me screaming her head off in excitement as the house lights went down, I knew I was in for an experience I’d love.

Shakespeare’s Women or The Bard’s Broads is a feminist exploration of the treatment of women in Shakespearean comedies.  The production intersperses characters and plot lines from Midsummer’s Night DreamTaming of the Shrew,  Much Ado About Nothing,  Measure for Measure  and A Winter’s Tale throughout series of vignettes designed to highlight how little has changed in gendered interpersonal violence since the 1500s.

The show doesn’t fail to get straight to the point about the social dynamics that allow and encourage sexual violence and abuse against women.

“You must lay down the treasures of your body; give up your body to such unclean sweetness.”

Using a presentation by boss-lady-chic motivational speaker Kit Valerie (better known as Katherine of Taming of the Shrew) on the power of naming oneself and the history of women as property as a framing device, the play is bitingly funny, until it suddenly isn’t, and it is suddenly, truly, a little scary.

Image provided by St. Lou Fringe and Robert Crowe

The play incorporates the actual text of the plays on which the performance is based, read by a Greek chorus of women, which offers biting commentary on the scene at hand; it’s short vignettes seamlessly blend contemporary language and inflection (“I just find it hilarious that…” plays beautifully) with that of centuries-old Shakespeare plays.

Fluidly transitioning between different characters, the small ensemble cast expertly took on a range of characters diverse in age, opinion, experience, and time period.  But, all of the female characters — faced with abuse, manipulation, and incompetence at the hands of the men in their lives — were united by one thing: their rage.

While the play does not present one cohesive story, each vignette flows into the one following it with ease. Standout scenes were diverse — taking place at a hilariously on the nose “sportsball” party, in a high school girls bathroom, and somewhere I wasn’t at first sure whether it was an AA meeting or a high school health class — and didn’t hold back from incisive, on the nose satire of both Shakespeare’s plays and contemporary gendered social dynamics.

The cast was all around brilliant, particularly Cammie Middleton who truly “went there” in her monologue about gaslighting and the psychological torture of intimate partner abuse.

For me, the emotional climax of the show came in the scene titled “Support Group,” where the women of Shakespeare’s comedies recounted abuse and sexual assault at the hands of their husbands and male family members while the men of the cast stood behind them justifying the abuse in exactly the language we hear on the news every time a woman actually dares to report violence she has faced.

As the men of the cast started to scream in unison — at the audience as much as their onstage wives, sisters, and daughters — I started to feel scared and small.  I didn’t realize until the stage lights started to go down as the screaming continued that what they were yelling was “I love you.”

“And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Shakespeare’s Women or The Bard’s Broads, written by Shannon Geier and directed by Elaine Laws, appears, as part of St. Lou Fringe, at The Kranzberg Arts Center Black Box theatre, 501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103. Showtimes are Friday, August 18th, 11pm; Saturday, August 19th at 4pm; Sunday, August 20th at 2:30pm; and Saturday, August 26th at 9:30pm.

because why not? theatre company will be taking a collection during each performance of Shakespeare’s Women or The Bard’s Broads, 100% of which will go to Safe Connections, a St. Louis organization dedicated to reducing the impact and incidences of relationship violence and sexual assault.

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