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Two for the ‘Shrew’: Friends, creative partners and Shakespearean interpreters

Bill DeYoung

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Bob Devin Jones and Veronica Leone Matthews. All photos by Bill DeYoung.

Theirs is a mutual admiration society that pointedly ignores any and all man-made borders, including a three-decade age difference. They’re friends and collaborators because they want to be. And because they share a passion for telling the stories of William Shakespeare.

Bob Devin Jones was a California actor and playwright who arrived in St. Petersburg in 1996, to direct August Strindberg’s Miss Julie at American Stage. He loved the city and he stayed on.

Several years later, he was playing the Prince of Verona in Romeo and Juliet – in an outdoor production at Demens Landing – when he met Veronica Leone Matthews, who’d just completed an internship at American Stage but was addicted to the production process (the series was discontinued in 2006).

Today, Jones is best known as the founder and artistic director of thestudio@620 – the community performance space celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2019 – and Matthews is an author, playwright and the founder of the nonprofit St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival.

As part of their Shakespeare in the City program, they’re co-directing The Taming of the Shrew, for eight performances between November 7 and 17, in Williams Park. Admission is free.

A benefit of spending a lifetime in the business of show, Jones says, is “you get to choose the people you want to work with. Veronica is a gift. She’s knowledgeable, she’s talented, she’s pleasant … and creating is no easy task. The work is always going to be there, so if you can do it with someone who’s delightful to be around, you’re on to something.”

Says Matthews: “Those years watching American Stage’s Shakespeare in the Park – and even performing in it sometimes – were really formative for me. I’ve had the most respect for him all these years, and now to get to work with him is an absolute pleasure.”

There’s more to it than mere gushing, they both insist.

“We didn’t know this about each other at first,” Matthews explains, “but we figured it out pretty quickly: We approach situations in a similar way. I think that’s very key.

“We’re both calm; we’re both rational. We approach situations, even difficult ones, with kindness first. I think we value that in others too. We want to work with people who are talented, and kind.”

The Taming of the Shrew is the second Shakespeare in the City co-production; Jones directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018, and the plan is for Matthews to helm Twelfth Night next year.

“When the ensemble and the esprit de corps is there, that’s why you do it,” Jones says. “There’s no hidden agenda. The ebullience of that ensemble; that’s all I’m after, personally.

“I’ve been very well blessed and highly favored in this town that I love. There’s nothing to prove – it’s just if you can have a good time, the audience will have a good time.”

One of the great things about Shakespeare is the flexibility of the words; the plays can, and have, been interpreted and adapted in diverse ways, via different artistic disciplines.

The Jones/Matthews take on The Taming of the Shrew will be relatively straightforward, with a cast of 13 telling the time-tested tale of Petruchio and Katherina.

There is one important difference: In this classic “battle of the sexes” narrative, all the characters will be played by men. There are no women in the cast.

“I didn’t want to spend two hours seeing a woman called ‘chattel’ and ‘my property,’” explains Jones. “This notion that a woman has to be ‘tamed’ is kind of antediluvian, but it’s been produced all over the world, hundreds of times. This is just our take on it.

“If you hear a man call another man ‘my property,’ it might make you think about those polemics. Or not! You might think it’s funny, and that’s just fine.” The Taming of the Shrew is, after all, a comedy.

In any case, during Shakespeare’s time, there were no female actors. Everything was staged with an all-male cast.

The announcement of this “return to form” on social media was met with huzzahs, for the most part, although at least one person (not local) raised a figurative eyebrow.

Jones, who has zero interest in social media, couldn’t care less.

“I’m a dazzling urbanite from Los Angeles,” he says. “I don’t want to have to be the one that answers ‘Why are you doing Shakespeare with an all-male cast?’ I’m a black gay man who’s prime to get Medicare – let me go off into my dotage just getting my work done. And again, since we offer it free and open to the public, it’s not compulsory.”

He closes his eyes and croons a few lines from Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes:

If you don’t know me by now

You will never never know me, ooh ….

“And the ooh is the most important part,” he laughs.

“When you create, you don’t go in to defend anything. Just make sure that you get the work done.”

Matthews chimes in. “Since the very beginning of this company, I have consistently cast females in male roles. So this gender change, in the same way, allows us a different perspective on an old story. And I think the conversations surrounding that are important to have, especially right now.”

Details and additional info here.

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