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The Unapologetic Women of ‘Kiss Me Kate’

April 24, 2018 by Allison Considine
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Ben Davis and Cayman Ilika in “Kiss Me Kate” at 5th Avenue Theatre. (Photographed by Tracy Martin)

Cole Porter’s hummable songs from the 1948 musical “Kiss Me, Kate” are currently filling The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. The classic tuner, with book by Samuel and Bella Spewack, is about the staging of a musical production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” — and the antics that occur when the show’s stars, a divorced couple, bring their behind-the-scenes drama to the stage. The Shakespearean characters and 1940s acting troupe both grapple with gender and power dynamics. The production runs through April 29.

Cayman Ilika and Robyn Hurder star as Lilli Vanessi and Lois Lane (with counterparts of Katherine and Bianca in “The Shrew”) and help bring women to the forefront of this revival. TodayTix caught up with the actors to discuss bringing the show to modern audiences.

Get tickets to “Kiss Me Kate” from $25.

What does “Kiss Me, Kate” offer a contemporary audience?

Cayman Ilika: It’s my belief that the end of the show sees Lilli Vanessi coming into a full realization of her autonomy. She is leaving behind Harrison Howell, who is oppressive and trying to put her into these traditional roles, and she’s embracing the fact that she is an unapologetically strong woman.

Robyn Hurder: “Kiss Me, Kate” has always been one of my favorite musicals. When I perform it at night, I know we, as an ensemble, are giving the audience a hilariously joyful and romantic night out. It’s a classic battle of the sexes, showered with the glorious music of Cole Porter, and a delicious glaze of vaudeville all over it.

In light of current conversations surrounding sexual abuse, how were the show’s scenes involving assault addressed in the rehearsal room?

Ilika: Our director Alan Paul, choreographer Michele Lynch, and fight director Geoffrey Alm all had strong opinions about how to make it not a victim-abuser relationship or mentality when approaching those scenes. I know that it was really important to artistic director David Armstrong that we avoid making Lilli a victim…In our big fight scene, [Paul] has given Fred the motivation to stop me, not to beat me.

Hurder: We as a company knew that we were putting on this production at a sensitive time. The first day of rehearsal our director addressed this matter immediately and expressed that he wanted to have an open, honest discussion about the physicality some of the scenes required. He made sure all members involved were comfortable staging the moments and happy with the outcome. And everyone is. It has been a wonderful collaborative experience tweaking the show to celebrate equality between women and men.

Robyn Hurder in “Kiss Me Kate” at The 5th Avenue Theatre. (Photographed by Tracy Martin)

Lilli Vanessi and Lois Lane are both determined, tenacious women. What do you like most about portraying your character?

Ilika: I, personally, am not a confrontational person. I’m a strong woman, but I have on occasion apologized for my strengths. Just to get in touch with my rage and my unapologetic strength has been wonderful. It has been so much fun to explore that side of myself and to get to sing “I Hate Men” in this particular moment in time is really a delight.

Hurder: Well, I have to say, we have very similar qualities. Obviously not the addiction to material items and men, but we’re both strong, unapologetic females who are determined to go out into the world and get what we want. That’s why I love portraying her every night. I get to put so much of my own personality and energy into this character and that’s when I feel I do my best — when I get to be Robyn onstage as well.

What has your experience been working with this iconic material?

Ilika: I saw Rachel York do the national tour when I was in high school. I just remember being absolutely bowled over by that production and just how beautiful it was. I studied vocal jazz in college, I love Cole Porter — it is a style that I’m just really in love with. To get to sing his songs has been a real dream. I’ve also been attending The 5th Avenue Theatre since I was five years old, and this is my first time playing a leading role on that stage. And it is a huge leading role! It has just been a complete dream realized.

Hurder: If I got to choose any type of music that would be my soundtrack for when I die and go to heaven it would be Cole Porter. I am a huge fan of jazz standards and Mr. P is, hands down, my favorite. So anytime I get to put my kiss on his ridiculously sassy and delicious lyrics and stunning melodies, I am in literal heaven.

Get tickets to “Kiss Me Kate” from $25.