Matt Mueller | Performer of the week
In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the role of Petruchio, the cocky man who transforms the brash, independent Kate into an obedient wife, has become an exceedingly complicated one in modern times. Matt Mueller navigates the play’s tricky gender politics with ease in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s outdoor touring production of the classic comedy, becoming the latest member of the Mueller family to make his mark on the Chicago theater scene. The son of performers Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger, Matt and his siblings Abby, Andrew and Jessie have all pursued careers in the arts, with Jessie recently scoring a Tony nomination for her performance in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and currently starring in the Public Theater’s outdoor production of Into The Woods in Central Park. After getting a taste of performing at Evanston Township High School, Mueller attended University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for two years before pursuing a different career path, but he ultimately couldn’t resist the pull of the stage. Mueller talks to us about his first experience with Shakespeare, growing up in an arts-centric household, and how he makes Petruchio a sympathetic character.
What was your first experience performing Shakespeare?
I got my first real taste of Shakespeare doing Two Gentlemen of Verona my sophomore year [at University of Illinois], which was sort of trial by fire. Robert Anderson directed it, which was hilarious and frightening at the same time. I got to play Speed, one of the clowns, and learned a lot about Shakespeare just in that short amount of time. But Champaign-Urbana's not my favorite place. At that point there was a bunch of different stuff going on and I decided I didn't—I re-auditioned, got in to continue and that was kind of like, “I don't want to do this anymore.”
I transferred, I left and went out to University of Colorado in Boulder, and I was like, “I just want to go to school go to school.” I don't want to be in any kind of conservatory or blah-de-blah whatever. So I transferred and I did environmental biology for a year then discovered I couldn't do math, and transferred to the music department and did that for a year. Then took a year off to get Colorado residency, because it was so ridiculously expensive, and then did a bunch of stuff during that time and when I came back, I had all these miscellaneous credits, so I became a humanities major and it was actually the best time in school I’ve ever had. I got to read all this stuff you're supposed to read. Art history and philosophy and music and theater and it was all wrapped into this wonderful nerdy package.
I finally got out of school after like five and a half years, and one of my professors was involved in the Shakespeare Oratorio Society, which was a few of the professors and some outside folk who would stage readings of Shakespeare plays and they needed somebody that winter for I think it was Twelfth Night. And I was like, “Well, okay,” and I hadn't done anything in years and years, and I did that and through that got involved with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and got back into it and finally discovered that I really missed it and I really enjoyed it. And that's how I got back into acting. All told I was out in Colorado for about 10 years. And then finally this past fall I moved back home.
What was it like growing up in an arts-focused household? Was there any pressure to pursue a career in arts? To not pursue that career path?
There really wasn't any pressure either way, which was great. They really always have been super supportive of everything we've done or tried to do or thought we were going to do. I think more than anything it's just kind of funny, we all just kind of roll our eyes and laugh that everyone seems to have, as some people say, “Gone with the family business.” But one thing that's really cool is there's an understanding of what it is and what it entails, just as far as schedule and life and it's also great to just be able to—I respect my family's opinion a lot about the work, so it's just great, especially after seeing a show or having them come see a show you are in, to talk about it and talk about what's good, what is not working so well, and it's a great supportive environment in that way. Like you can rely on their opinion and keep trying to get better. So I've always really enjoyed that. You can talk shop at the dinner table.
Being in Colorado for so long, did you have a lot of experience doing outdoor theater?
Absolutely. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival, it's like a 1,000-seat stone amphitheater right in the courtyard of one of the buildings on campus. The whole campus is that flagstone, it’s beautiful and it’s great when the stars come out. That space in particular can be a difficult space to be heard. You kind of have to figure out how you can face downstage for a lot of it. But also then going to Utah, which is another amazing outdoor space, the Adams Theatre is a joy to work in because it's very Globe-ish, so it has that wonderful intimacy about it, even though it's a 700-seat theater or something like that. Maybe not that big. But yeah, I love doing it outside, it's great. We were just at the Pier yesterday which was lovely. Especially with some of the later shows when the sun starts to go down and it starts to cool off, it's great. Everything just sort of comes into focus and starts to settle. And this time we're mic-ed so that was sort of exciting.
How does the experience change when you bring it outside versus being inside Chicago Shakespeare?
One thing in particular which is actually very cool and sort of old-school Shakespearian: You're doing it in the light. The lights don't go down. So you can see everybody, which is wonderful and especially in this kind of construct where we're going out to these places where maybe people have never had any contact with Shakespeare. What's so wonderful, especially about any of the direct address stuff or any of the soliloquies, is you get to actually look at people. You get to engage specific people and get those thoughts and ideas from them. And a) that's live theater and b) that’s one of the cool things about Shakespeare and the kind of immediacy of it. You literally get to engage with your audience in the light of day which is cool and I think helps draw people into the story and let them know that they are indeed part of it. It's always a different place every time, so it keeps the liveliness of it very present.
Jumping into the content of the play, the moral's a bit questionable unless you have a clever director/actor interpretation, which I think this show does with Rachel Rockwell directing and Ericka Ratcliff as Kate. How do you work to make Petruchio a sympathetic character?
That is huge. We fortunately do have a very clever director. From the get-go, Rachel had a very specific idea of what she wanted to be, and she's just absolutely a joy. One thing we talked about in the beginning, with the school tour in particular, she had this idea of labels, that labeling people is the quickest way to not get to know them. And so that's very true of Kate: From the get-go, everyone's told that she is catty and a shrew and a mean person. Just at everybody all the time. So that's what everyone expects and no one really takes the time to get to know her, nor does she. She sort of keeps everybody at arm's length and doesn't let anybody get to know her. So she kind of just plays into what everybody thinks she is. Then I show up, and I hear all this stuff about her too. But I think the thing with Kate and Petruchio is I actually think they're very similar in a lot of ways. They’re also super smart. The whole wooing scene couldn't happen if they weren't both at each other's level, which is part of why that scene is so much fun and I think can be so much fun to watch. Because you have these two very bright people sparring who are obviously attracted to each other, because that's the first thing that happens in that first scene, they see each other and there's just an immediate attraction. That gets the ball rolling and then they start to talk to each other and size each other up and have this sexy verbal fencing match.
I also think that they're also they're both very vulnerable in a way, because I think they do keep people at arm's length, so at some point make this choice, and I know it's true for Petruchio, he actually wants to get to know this person. There's all kinds of reasons he does it in the first place, the money and all this stuff, but he says she's beautiful, he says she's witty and it's like here's someone who's worth his time and an amazing person in her own right and I do think it is, in its weird roundabout way, a love story. I think they do actually—by the end of the play they both learn a lot about themselves and about the other person. I think they're a good pairing. I think they complement each other. Her whole speech can be a very problematic speech. I do think that it's sincere in our interpretation of it. But I think that everything she says about love and about kneeling for peace, it's kind of like that picking your battles kind of thing. And everything that she says also applies to him. And I think he's surprised at the end by all of the things she's laying out there at his feet, at their respective feet. When it gets to the end and she says, “Put your hand on your husband’s foot,” she goes down to really say, “You can do whatever you want,” and he stops her and says, “We don't have to go that far. We got it. We're here, let's make this work.”
So it's a kooky love story but it is a love story, and that's just it. If you don't genuinely care that these people are together or if you don't like either one of them, then to me there's really no point in telling the story. Because you don't want to be horrified. You don't want it to be a violent, abusive relationship, and if you don't like either one of them, you don’t want them to be happy and it's very hard to get on board. So I hope that we've gotten to a place where it's like yeah, this is a good thing for all parties involved.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater's The Taming of the Shrew runs through August 19 at various Chicago parks. See the full performance schedule here.