The Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Jazzy, sweet and hilarious, Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew is so stuffed with eye and ear candy that you will think you have wandered into a dessert factory and all the guards are on annual leave. It is so scrumptious, in fact, that you will be tempted to ignore the ominous undertones. The play won’t let you, though. Neither will the production.
Let’s get directly to the problem with which this play confronts us. Petruchio (Christopher Innvar) physically brutalizes Katherina (Charlayne Woodard), marries her against her will, drags her kicking and screaming to his home, dresses her in rags, and deprives her of food and sleep until, spirit crushed, she acknowledges him as her lord and master. At his bidding, she calls the Sun the Moon, and describes an elderly man as a young virgin. Shakespeare treats these developments as great fun and, through the voice of Katherina, endorses Petruchio’s Gitmo-style depredations as the tactics of love.
So how does the Shakespeare Theatre Company solve this problem? By treating these developments as great fun – enormous fun, and, through Katherina, endorsing Petruchio’s acts. And yet, somehow, improbably, it makes the play work.
We tend to think of Kate and Petruchio’s relationship in the light of the musical Kiss Me Kate, or of the real-life relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who famously played the couple in the 1967 movie. That is to say, we tend to think of it as cute. But there was nothing cute in the way Shakespeare wrote it. Kate is a termagant who specializes in deflating the egos of men, and her father Baptista (Nicholas Hormann) despairs of her marrying. His attitude seems patronizing now, but in Shakespeare’s time it was a matter of life and death. The economy was based on muscle mass, and women who did not have the protection of men were apt to starve or be killed. It was not that people believed women incapable of rule. England had a queen, and she was quite obviously highly capable. It was, rather, that in a society that lived on brute force it was very difficult for a woman to be on her own.
Baptista’s hole card is his lissome, compliant daughter Bianca (Lisa Birnbaum). She draws men as clover draws bees, so Baptista lays down the law: Bianca will not marry until he can first marry off Katherina. Bianca’s most ardent suitors, Hortensio (Aubrey K. Deeker) and the elderly Gremio (J. Fred Shiffman, as you have never seen him), engage Petruchio for the predicate task. Petruchio has an instinct for currency, and receiving it from two sources – the suitors as well as daddy – proves irresistible. He concludes arrangements with Baptista, and presents himself to the horrified Katherina. Their encounter is one of the wittiest in all of Shakespeare.
Director Taichman and the Company do all this in a sort of high-glamour, mile-a-minute fashion that had the opening night audience guffawing mightily. Her principals, and several of her supporting players, have roots in musical theater and Taichman does not ignore the play’s musicality. (At one point, delightfully, Petruchio sings a line from Kiss Me Kate). Nor does she ignore the comic aspects: when Baptista announces his planned dowry for Katherina, the sound of a cash register booms throughout the theater, and Petruchio flashes the universal “yes!” sign. When Gremio and Hortensio wax lyrically about Bianca, the lady herself appears, wheeled in her bath across the stage by minions, bubbles concealing her naughty bits. The fabulous set (for which Narelle Sissons is responsible) is composed of strategically designed display windows, split by a revolving door, reinforcing the commercial nature of the marriage transactions in Baptista’s Padua. (The display windows double as isolation booths as Gremio and a new suitor, Lucentio (Michael Milligan) – who unbeknownst to Baptista is being played by his servant Tranio (an excellent Bruce Nelson) bid for Bianca before an auctioneering Baptista). Overarching the set is a painting of the gorgeous Bianca, dressed in a cherry-red one-piece bathing suit.
This lovely musicless musical comedy continues until the close of the first Act, when Petruchio and his rustic servant Grumio (the marvelous Louis Butelli) show up for the wedding dressed outrageously, and insultingly. They behave sacrilegiously, and ruin one of the few days assigned to Katherina’s joy. Petruchio drags Katherina away by her hair, sneering and snarling at her friends and relatives as he leaves them behind. We realize, perhaps for the first time, how tiny Woodard’s Katherina is, and how huge and physical is Innvar’s Petruchio. In a few moments, comedy has seamlessly become drama.
Taichman gives as full vent to the drama, as she gave full vent to comedy. Although Petruchio’s inept household staff is good for a few laughs in the second Act (Erika Rose is particularly sharp as a befuddled servant, and a table-clearing scene is beautifully done), Petruchio’s tactics are plain, and horrifying to a modern audience. He deprives Katherina of everything she loves – indeed, needs to live – until she gives him unquestioning obedience. He does this, he explains, because he loves her, and because he represents her last chance to live in the world into which she has been born. In the end, she surrenders blindly, and calls the Sun the Moon at his whim, showing that to her, Petruchio is the Sun and the Moon.
All of this is done with enormous authenticity. Once the fun and laughter of Katherina’s acerbic “courtship” is over, her heart, and Petruchio’s, lie naked before us. Innvar makes it wonderfully clear: Petruchio is not playing a game. He is engaged in a desperate effort to teach his wife how to live in this primitive society, and goes hungry and sleepless himself in the attempt. Woodard’s spot-on performance helps us understand the immensity of Petruchio’s task. Her initial fury is directed not just at men but at the whole world, and her fierce angry utterances describe a woman who is in pain at every moment in her life. She is not that way at the end. Haggard and hungry, she has had her epiphany, and her final speech – I’ll get to it later – shows, if stripped of its gender-specific rhetoric, a considerable wisdom.
This is a slam-bang production, Shakespeare at 85 miles per hour. Taichman, who showed such a sure hand directing Sarah Ruhl’s A Clean House, is equally at home with the work of an even greater writer. The superb performances she gets from her principals echoes up and down her cast; it would be a waste of space to single them out, as they were all excellent.
Now, what of Katherina’s final speech, in which she states Shakespeare’s point plainly? One hundred ten years ago, George Bernard Shaw said that “no man with any decency of feeling can sit out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put in the woman’s own mouth,” and modern audiences might feel the same way. But Katherina’s speech contains a truth about marriage which, if applied to both parties rather than women only, resonates timelessly:
“A lover moved to dispute is like a fountain troubled, muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; and while it is so, none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it. Thy beloved is thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, and for thy maintenance commits the body to painful labour both by sea and land, to watch the night in storms, the day in cold, whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe; and craves no other tribute at thy hands but love, fair looks and true obedience; too little payment for so great a debt.”
A marriage grounded in the struggle for power is no marriage at all; it is a business arrangement, and a bad one at that. Katherina’s wisdom, as applicable to us today, urges us to put all other concerns aside, and make the happiness of our beloved our highest and most suitable task. When both partners so devote themselves, they meet somewhere in the middle, and consider themselves blessed.
(Running time: 2:30, including one intermission.) The Taming of the Shrew continues at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Landsburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, Tuesdays through Sundays until November 18. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays are at 7.30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8. There are additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and a noon matinee on Wednesday, November 14. No show on November 6 or 13; no evening show on October 28. Tickets range from $23.50 to $79.75, and can be had by calling 202.547.1122 or online here.