Dallas’ Plague Mask Players are bringing classic sitcoms to Shakespeare with “The Taming of the Shrew”

The look and feel of “I Love Lucy” meets the language of The Bard in this unique and inventive twist on “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Plague Mask Players "The Taming of the Shrew"
The poster for Plague Mask Players’ production of “The Taming of the Shrew” – Pictures courtesy of Plague Mask Players

When you think of classic 1950s TV sitcoms, shows like “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” and “The Jack Benny Program” instantly come to mind. They’re some of the most popular, influential shows in comedy, inspiring generations of actors and shows ever since they aired. The latest production for Dallas’ Plague Mask Players puts an original spin on a classic comedy by drawing inspiration from iconic 50s sitcoms.

Plague Mask Players’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” will run from March 8-17 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre. The production puts one of The Bard’s most famous comedies following the relationship between Petruchio and Katharina into a classic sitcom setting with the help of Pegasus Theatre’s trademark Living Black and White makeup style. Audiences will see a live show entirely in black and white, just as if they were watching a rerun of “I Love Lucy” on MeTV.

Plague Mask Players "The Taming of the Shrew"
A look at “The Taming of the Shrew” in the Living Black and White makeup style

The production’s director, Shea McMillan, wrote the unique adaptation. She explained that “The Taming of the Shrew” combines different influences from her childhood. “It was one of the first Shakespeare shows I was ever familiar with, and I’ve been a theater kid through and through since I was a toddler and had a growing interest in Shakespeare from my middle school years on,” McMillan said, recalling different touch points she had with the comedy growing up like performing in a middle school adaptation of the play. “It’s a play that I have long had an appreciation for and a nostalgia for.”

Her passion for Shakespeare eventually led her to meet her husband, Michael, and Plague Mask Players Executive and Artistic Director Samantha Calatozzo Cobb while working on a production of “Twelfth Night” in Dallas. Shea and Michael McMillan have been together ever since and eventually reconnected with Calatozzo Cobb to help build Plague Mask Players

Calatozzo Cobb said Plague Mask Players initially began during the pandemic as a way to connect with other artists. The company started as a Facebook group that would put on Zoom readings of Shakespearean plays. The first 15 people to comment on a particular reading received a reserved spot for a race and gender-blind role. According to Calatozzo Cobb, the company “grew immensely” after Shea and Michael McMillan joined, now numbering more than 700 members online across 13 different countries.

The company has since begun producing full live shows, with “The Taming of the Shrew” marking Plague Mask Players’ third such play. Calatozzo Cobb said the company has already “built a reputation for making classics, but especially Shakespeare, relatable for modern, diverse audiences, and that’s something we’re very passionate about.”

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That approach extends to “The Taming of the Shrew,” a play originally written with heavily misogynistic and abusive themes. The play primarily revolves around Petruchio’s efforts to torment and trick Katharina into becoming his vision of a perfect bride. “As time has gone on and as I’ve grown up and matured, you come to realize how much misogyny is baked into that show,” McMillan said.

Nonetheless, McMillan recognized the elements that make “The Taming of the Shrew” a popular comedy and a touchpoint for her childhood. It led her to base the show within the framework of classic 50’s and 60’s sitcoms. She said that those sitcoms, while not to such a severe extent, also often reflected the sexist themes of the culture at the time. The show retains Shakespeare’s original language while simultaneously including more female-presenting characters and what Calatozzo Cobb calls a “feminist twist” to the original story that the theater is keeping under wraps.

“If you know a little bit about the subject matter in this show, to choose to do “Taming of the Shrew” in 2024 is an active choice when there are so many other Shakespeare shows to do,” Jaclyn Thomas, who stars as Katharina in the play, said. Thomas, who recently moved to the area, had heard others talk highly of Plague Mask Players. When she saw the audition notice and realized the company had made such a bold choice, she thought “something really cool is going to come from it, and then lo and behold, I realized ‘Oh my gosh, we’re doing this black and white sitcom theme.’ There’s just so many layers to it.”

The play will mark the first time in Pegasus Theatre’s 38-year history that the theater has allowed another company to use its secret Living Black and White makeup process. Thomas, along with the rest of the cast, will appear to audiences entirely in black and white as if they were appearing on an era-appropriate TV set.

“I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised with what they see with this production,” Pegasus Theatre Artistic Director Kurt Kleinmann said. Kleinmann, who developed the makeup process, said that it takes first-time actors about two hours to apply the makeup while those with more experience with the process take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.

Plague Mask Players "The Taming of the Shrew"
Another look at the Living Black and White makeup style used in “The Taming of the Shrew”

Longtime Pegasus Theatre actor and makeup artist Leslie Patrick is helping “The Taming of the Shrew” actors learn the process. Patrick said that she gave the cast “a rough idea of what it should look like and what it feels like” the weekend before the production opened, with their first time experiencing the full makeup occurring at rehearsals the following Tuesday night. “Pegasus has been wonderful collaborators,” McMillan said of working with the theater.

“I think we got really lucky with doing (the show) in this type of style,” Cody Magouirk, the play’s Petruchio, said. Magouirk said his strength as an actor comes from going “big” and embracing an over-the-top style. He believes that 50s sitcoms and Shakespearean acting both have similar acting styles that allow him to embrace those strengths.

In addition, he immediately felt a chemistry and connection with Thomas during auditions. Despite the difficulties that come with working on a play with the themes of “The Taming of the Shrew,” he’s enjoyed the opportunity to work with Thomas. “It’s definitely challenging, and it’s been really nice to work with someone with Jaclyn’s intensity, not only to match energy but to know that we have to find a little something that says we kind of like each other in order for it not to go off the rails real quickly,” Magouirk said of working on “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Magouirk credited the “strong women running this company” with having the creativity and drive to put on this production, which AT&T Performing Arts Center selected as part of its 2023-24 Elevator Project season designed to support “small, emerging and marginalized arts organizations and artists” in the local community.

Calatozzo Cobb highlighted the production as an opportunity to “bring diverse voices (and) gender identities…to the forefront of something on a major stage.” “It’s important to us to bring those voices forward,” Calatozzo Cobb said.

McMillan hopes theatergoers “laugh a lot and really enjoy their evening at the theater” when seeing “The Taming of the Shrew” while also giving them an opportunity to think about how the play explores its deeper themes.

“I think that this is a good opportunity to examine how our media (and) our entertainment treats people who are in a position of power or privilege. In this particular case, it’s a lot about misogyny and sexism played for laughs,” McMillan said.

Thomas described how she hopes “The Taming of the Shrew” will bring audiences an enjoyable night out at the theater while also possibly helping people who have been in Katharina’s situation feel seen through her performance. “I want to feel together in that (theater) space and supported in that space, and I’m really excited about it,” Thomas said of the show.

The Plague Mask Players production of “The Taming of the Shrew” runs from March 8-17 at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre. For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.plaguemaskplayers.org/.

These interviews have been edited for clarity.


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