Kat Hermes (Bianca/Tranio/Curtis) on Playing a Playmaker

When I was originally cast in The Taming of the Shrew, I was cast as Bianca, and expected to be doubled into one or two other minor roles. As anyone who’s read this blog or seen the show knows, things didn’t turn out that way. On our first night of rehearsal, I learned that I would be playing another major role, one that’s actually much larger than Bianca; Tranio, the conniving servant of the hapless male ingenue, Lucentio.

The clever servant who aids, but also manipulates, his less-intelligent master is a stock comedic character. But the interesting thing about Tranio is that while he’s smart, he’s not especially funny. Most of the good one-liners go to Petruchio’s servant Grumio or Lucentio’s other servant Biondello. Tranio gets a few deadpan asides that can earn a chuckle from the audience, but he spends much more time hatching plots than cracking jokes.

In a way, Tranio is what’s called a “playmaker” character; he writes the script from within the play and drives the action to achieve his own ends. But unlike other playmakers, such as Rosalind in As You Like It, Richard in Richard III or Falstaff in Henry IV (a role I played this summer for Pigeon Creek), Tranio doesn’t share the game with the audience. The audience gets to watch and enjoy his plots unfold, but isn’t invited to be his accomplice. In contrast, Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew’s other playmaking character, makes a point of including the audience in his plans, telling them exactly how he plans to woo and then tame the shrewish Kate, and even asking their advice on his methods.

I bring up all this textual analysis to try to explain why Tranio was an especially challenging role for me. He’s a comic character who doesn’t make jokes, a playmaker without the playmaker’s usual connection to the audience; he doesn’t share any more information with the audience than he does with the other characters on stage. He’s hard to get a handle on. It’s much easier to play a liar who’s not very good at lying than it is to play a character like Tranio, who lies so well it’s difficult to tell from the text whether he’s ever telling the truth.

When playing multiple characters, as I certainly am in this production, I like to pick one character that is closest to my own physical “default” setting, which is usually the character I spent the most time as or the character who is the most like me. Because Tranio is my largest role, I chose him as my “default” character, so most of the physical work I did was in creating two different variations on that, Tranio as himself and Tranio in disguise as Lucentio. So the outside, the “what” of Tranio was fairly easy to come to. The inside, the “why,” was much more difficult.

It is possible to take him at face value when he says “I am content to be Lucentio, because so well I love Lucentio.” If everything he does is truly done out of devotion to his master, everything he does makes sense. But it is equally possible to imagine that he manipulates Lucentio into switching clothing and identities with no intention of ever actually switching back. His actions also make sense with that motivation. Going on the theory that complexity is always more interesting to watch, I decided that Tranio lies somewhere between these two extremes. He does genuinely care for his naive and gullible master, but at the same time is not above taking advantage of him for personal gain. When doing my actorly work of deciding my character’s intentions and tactics, I’ve thought very specifically about which actions Tranio takes to help Lucentio, and which actions he takes for himself.

I’ve also thought a lot about where the fun for the audience is in watching Tranio. You’re not really invited to laugh with or at him, you’re not included as his co-conspirators. You’re simply asked to watch, and hopefully enjoy watching, the cleverness with which his plans unfold and with which he adapts to obstacles.