PITTSFIELD -- When it comes to Barrington Stage Company, director Joe Calarco is used to working in cameo -- "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick," "The Memory Show," "The Burnt Part Boys" -- small-scale musicals in BSC's intimate second stage.
And while he'll be there again later this summer with a workshop production of a musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, Calarco gets to play in BSC's big space -- the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage -- before then, not once, but twice. His production of "Breaking the Code" opens on the Mainstage in July. First, though, is "Kiss Me, Kate," Cole Porter (music and lyrics) and Sam and Bella Spewack's (book) inventive 1948 musical take on William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."
"Kiss Me, Kate" officially opens on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage 5 p.m. Sunday after final public previews tonight and Saturday.
Calarco has never directed "Kate" but when he was asked by BSC founding artistic director Julianne Boyd to direct it here, he couldn't resist.
"Kiss Me, Kate" is a genuine American musical theater classic and with good reason, Calarco says. It's not just that the score and lyrics are considered Porter's best
"The book has to work and the book here is strong," Calarco said during a pre-rehearsal interview. "Good writing always lasts.
"Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's based on a Shakespeare play."
Not just any Shakespeare play.
Theater lore has it that the faint inspiration for "Kiss Me, Kate" came from its lead producer, Saint Subber, who, while working as a stagehand for the Theater Guild's 1935 production of "Shrew" was aware that its married stars, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, were as quarrelsome with each other offstage as they were onstage as Petruchio and Kate.
"Kiss Me, Kate" was a big hit when it opened in 1948 -- the biggest of Porter's career. It ran for 1,070 performances and while it achieved success on the big screen in 1953 and become a staple of community, summer and regional theater, "Kate" didn't achieve success again in New York until a 1999 revival that starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie.
Part of "Kate's" problem may be the same issue that dogs "Shrew" -- its ending, in which a seemingly submissive Kate advises women on how they should behave with their husbands.
But Calarco and his leading actors, Elizabeth Stanley, who appeared at BSC in last season's "On the Town" (a role she will reprise on Broadway in the fall) and Paul Anthony Stewart see the ending another way.
"Shakespeare ‘s women are powerhouses," Calarco said. "I think we often play them wrong.
"I don't think Kate is saying in her final speech ‘I'm going to submit to you' and I don't buy playing her final speech with a nudge and a wink, as it so often is."
A powerhouse of a woman, Kate, Calarco says, is being forced into a marriage, treated like a slave. But, he says, "she often has the upper hand. They both have faults. They see each other clearly.
"And Lilli and Fred have a very contemporary relationship."
"In some ways," Stewart said, joining Calarco and Stanley at the interview, "I feel Fred becomes the tamed, sort of reverse parallel from Petruchio.
"(Like Petruchio and Kate) Fred and Lilli are passionate people. (Even though their marriage didn't work) they have profound feelings for one another. I don't think the opposite of love is hate."
"These are deep-feeling people who love hard and fight hard," Stanley said.
" ‘Taming' is such a harsh word," said Stewart. "I think you learn in a relationship how to be with your partner."
"I think Shakespeare was being very smart in his title," Calarco said. "I think there's an irony to it."
It's the passions, the ironies, the shifting dynamics of personality and relationships that, among other elements, attracted Calarco to "Kiss Me, Kate."
"These characters are vulnerable," Calarco said. "So many productions I've seen have been cartoony.
"Here, we're going for the truth."