Propeller brings Shakespeare to life, warts and all

The cast of Propeller's production of Twelfth Night. 
The cast of Propeller's production of Twelfth Night. 
Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Don't read too much into the fact that Propeller, the British company now performing Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew at the Guthrie, is an all-male company, says director Edward Hall.

"Propeller is about a group of people rather than a gender crusade. We imagine through the skills of the actors and see how it happens," Hall says. This started with a production of Henry V, where the story was told by a group of soldiers who took on all of the parts -- men and women -- in the play.

"Over the years, just over 50 actors have been involved. I usually try to give the current company an offer on the next show. It gives the actors a bit more ownership of what they do. We stayed a small group of people, and have developed a shorthand. Playing Shakespeare requires talent and quite a bit of practice," Hall says.

The two plays offer plenty of contrasts for the company. "The Taming of the Shrew is as different to Twelfth Night as you can imagine, but you know they were written by the same person," Hall says.

The Taming of the Shrew centers on the breaking of free spirited Kate by her husband, Petruchio. Those moments -- where Kate is denied food, drink, and sleep -- have pushed the show onto the "problem" side of Shakespeare's plays. Hall sees a script that exposes these issues.

The Merchant of Venice "is a very powerful play about anti-Semitism, and The Taming of the Shrew is a powerful play about misogyny," Hall says.

In The Taming of the Shrew "if you play the play straight, it is a perfect illustration of what happens to a woman who is bound by the strictures of the time. By the end, Kate is almost suffering Stockholm Syndrome," Hall says. "You get a very interesting resonance when a man plays that part."

Through the years, Propeller has made several intriguing pairings, like the Comedy and Errors and Richard III.

These pairings often feature contrasts that help to define the plays. "The tragic elements of Comedy of Errors make it fun, while the comedic areas of Richard III made it so much a tragedy," Hall says.

"It wasn't Shakespeare who categorized his plays as tragedies and comedies," Hall says. "What ties these two plays together is the writer's talent for turning comedy into tragedy. The laughing in Twelfth Night is just a hairsbreadth away from melancholy. Taming is as a hairsbreadth away from violence and cruelty. All comedy is based on pain, and that has grown in both productions."

Much of that comes from Shakespeare's genius. "You have a young man writing for the first time and getting very intoxicated by the stage. At one moment you have full-blown farce, then it's lyrical, and then tragic, and then back to farce again," Hall says. "We try to follow it as vividly as possible as the shape shifts constantly."


Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew
In repertoire, now through April 6
Guthrie Theater
818 2nd Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.

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