Tampa Bay is tackling Shakespeare in a big way. How do you keep it relevant?

Shakespeare’s themes are timeless. But attitudes about race and the treatment of women have changed over the centuries.
Published February 1

It has been more than 400 years since William Shakespeare penned his first play, but his work has lived on for centuries in countless productions around the world.

Count Tampa Bay among them right now.

Jobsite Theater in Tampa is presenting Othello. And there’s a month-long St. Petersburg Celebration of the Arts with numerous Shakespearean events happening, including St. Petersburg Opera’s production of Kiss Me Kate, inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.

Shakespeare’s themes are universally relatable and mostly rooted in the human condition — love, greed, guilt, hubris. And Shakespeare wasn’t the first to write about these themes; the ancient Greeks had these topics covered long before the Bard was born.

Even so, attitudes about race and the treatment of women have changed over the centuries. So how do you make Shakespeare relevant?

When semi-retired neurologist Gordon Gilbert and his wife, art historian Michele Kidwell Gilbert set out to create the St. Petersburg Celebration of the Arts, using Shakespeare’s works as a theme was a no-brainer.

“It had to be something that enough people would like, that would be a unifying concept for different cultural organizations,” Gilbert said. “There’s a lot of Shakespeare embedded in our culture and it’s something that you can get anybody involved in.

The couple have served on boards of arts organizations including the Florida Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Opera and the Museum of Fine Arts. They used connections to organize the festival’s plays, orchestra performances, lectures and art exhibits at various locations around the city.

Michael Francis, music director of the Florida Orchestra, immediately offered to conduct A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Spitfire Theater will perform an improvised adaptation derived from Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren’t Dead, every Friday in February. Museums including the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art and the Museum of Fine Arts are pairing works of art with Shakespearean quotes and sonnets.

Through a lecture titled “Why the Merchant of Venice is Not an Antisemitic Play” at the Florida Holocaust Museum on Feb. 24, University of South Florida English professor Sara Munson Deats will debunk the idea that the problematic character Shylock, a miserly Jew, makes the entire play racist. It will be accompanied by a mini exhibition of Arthur Szyk’s graphic illustrations from Ludwig Lewisohn’s 1931 book The Last Days of Shylock.

“I stayed away, I never read (The Merchant of Venice), I never went to a production,” said Michele Gordon. “And now we’ve been watching it on Netflix. I think there’s a good case to be made. There’s not a topic that Shakespeare does not relate to. Ideas of disability, conniving, integrity, even false news. And it’s all universal.”

Mark Sforzini, music director of the Tampa Bay Symphony, found universal themes in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, which he’ll lead the symphony in on Feb. 19.

“Romeo and Juliet is about more than just star-crossed lovers,” he said “It’s really about warring factions. And that’s timeless. That’s the times we live in now. There’s so much polarization.”

Sforzini, also the artistic and executive director of the St. Petersburg Opera, looked at Shakespearean operas for the festival. But because of their very large orchestrations, he settled on the more manageable Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s 1948 Broadway musical based on The Taming of the Shrew.

In a #metoo era, treatment and portrayals of women in both works are grounds for a Women’s March. In The Taming of the Shrew, a headstrong woman is kidnapped, starved and baited into arguments by a man so that she’ll submit as his wife. Kiss me, Kate follows the cast of a production Shrew, all embroiled in their own relationship dramas. The character Lilli, who plays Kate in the play, is obdurate. In character as Kate, Lilli sings a song called, I Am Ashamed that Women Are So Simple.

Instead of changing the play, Sforzini felt sticking with the script provided a learning moment.

“It’s good to see what people wrote in the mid-century and you see how far we’ve come,” he said. “We still have ways to go. There’s so much relevance there.”

Jobsite’s Othello is the theater’s seventh Shakespeare production. David Jenkins, producing artistic director of Jobsite, took strides to update the tale of a moor captain, Othello, who becomes manipulated by his lieutenant, Iago, to believe that his white wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful.

While Jenkins felt it was important to keep Othello as a man of color, and for Desdemona to be white, he wanted the rest of the cast to be diverse. The story is set in modern times, and some of the soldiers are gay, black and female.

But Jenkins had more profound work to do to make Othello modern. In the play — spoiler alert — Othello becomes enraged by the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity. He never talks to her about it and eventually murders her.

In order to keep this Othello from falling into the trope of an angry black man, Jenkins focused on making sure that he and Desdemona were a normal, happy couple, and that his irrational jealousy as a husband got the better of him.

For her part, the role of Desdemona was expanded to create more of an identity than victim. Jenkins cut lines from female characters commenting on their own frailty, as well as racist lines from Othello himself.

The theme of jealousy, he said, is universal. He wants people to take a few things away from the play.

“Iago doesn’t hate Othello because he’s a black man. It’s the idea of resenting this man being in charge,” he said. “He moves and walks in a diverse world, and it’s the idea that he just can’t get past, and how it manifests into his own weird jealousy. I think it’s very timely right now.”

Maybe the play itself isn’t sexist or racist, Jenkins said, but exists in a world where those things are very real.

“Shakespeare said himself that our job is to hold a mirror up to nature, and sometimes that mirror isn’t showing us in a really good light,” he said. “That is what this show does. It’s a tragedy. The things that make it tragedy, whether it be the overall world that these people live in, that it hasn’t changed much, maybe people can leave the theater and do something about it.”

If You Go:

The St. Petersburg Celebration of the Arts runs through Feb. 28. Find a complete listing of events at artsofstpete.org.

The St. Petersburg Opera Company’s production of Kiss Me, Kate opens Saturday and runs through Feb. 10 at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N. $20-$75. stpeteopera.org.

Othello runs through Feb. 9 in the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center for the Arts, 1010 N MacInness Place, Tampa. $29.50. jobsitetheatre.org.

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