The question isn’t should you go to the Shakespeare Theatre’s Free-for-all production of The Taming of the Shrew at Harman Hall. That’s a no-brainer. Of course you should go. If you’re a Shakespeare enthusiast, as I am, you should go because you’ll see great Shakespeare, at no cost. If you’re not a Shakespeare fan, it’s even more important that you go. Shakespeare is an experience to see and hear, not to read in a book, and this is a terrific opportunity to see one of his best plays done superbly, and for free.
The fact is, I had no use for Shakespeare myself until my second year of law school, when I saw a fantastic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – for free. It was so good I that I assumed that one of our modern geniuses – Albee, say, or Stoppard – had gotten hold of the script and improved on all those ancient “prithees”. They had not, of course. What happened is what should always happen to Shakespeare: a fine company brought the play to riotous life.
So if you are not a Shakespeare fan, I recommend that you see this play, and if at the end of it, you have not changed your mind, you can lay the matter to rest knowing that you will never like Shakespeare.
No, the question is what effect has giving Shrew a different, but excellent, director and different, but excellent, actors in most of the principal roles had on the play. The answer is that the play is excellent, but different. Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s 2007 original was at its heart a drama, made sweet and comic in its resolution and jazzy and glamorous in its execution. The present production, under the guidance of David Muse, is a rom-com all the way, full of sex and whimsy, and the engine that moves it is the genuine attraction between Kate and Petruchio which underlies all their conflict and hostility.
You’re probably familiar with the bones of the play. Bianca (Christina Pumariega) is Padua’s “It” girl, with suitors from all over – especially Hortensio (Aubrey Deeker) and the elderly Gremio (John Shuman). But Bianca’s dad Baptista (Tom Bloom), knowing his elder daughter Katherina (Sabrina LeBeauf) is otherwise unmarriageable, announces that no one will have Bianca’s hand until Katherina is safely wed. This induces Bianca’s desperate husband-wannabes to approach Petruchio (Ian Merrill Peakes), a rough-and-tumble friend of Hortensio with a thirst for a steady income. Katherina is comely if a little rough around the edges, they point out, and dad has a ton of money he’s willing to settle on her husband. Plus, under the circumstances, they are willing to throw in a few ducats of their own. Petruchio understands, and buys in.
This opens the door to Bianca – not for Hortensio or Gremio, but for Lucentio (Nathan Baesel), a native of Pisa with a penchant for trickery. He disguises himself as a tutor so that he can work his way into Bianca’s affections, and he disguises his servant Tranio (Bruce Nelson) as himself, in order to seal the deal financially with Baptista. There are a few contretemps along the way – notably, when Lucentio’s real father (John Robert Tillotson) shows up while Tranio is trying to pass a wandering pedant (Drew Eschelman) off as Lucentio’s dad — but in the end, the true love between Bianca and Lucentio (here shown to be as powerful as the Niagara) prevails.
Petruchio’s romantic task is more difficult, but using techniques which appear to come straight out of the Gitmo handbook – sleep deprivation, starvation, the offering and withdrawal of favors – he manages to wean Katherina from her defiance, and turn her into a loving wife. She closes the play with a stirring defense of wifely loyalty and obedience, and Petruchio closes as the envy of every man on stage.
It is this development which so discomforts modern audiences. Through the lens of our contemporary experience, we tend to see Katherina as a heroine – a proto-feminist who issues an early call for liberation, only to be brutalized by the mcps around her. But it would not have been seen so in Shakespeare’s time, which was incomparably different than ours. Katherina was not a feminist, but a genuinely miserable person, who tormented her sister with as much facility as she tortured men, and who made everyone around her unhappy. Her father’s effort to get her married, to a man who could live with her, was a genuine effort to save her life. In Elizabethan England, life was nasty, brutish and short; the reach of the law was miniscule and happiness belonged to those with good cudgels and strong swords. A woman alone had a better than 50-50 chance of being raped, robbed or murdered. This was due not to simple sexism – after all, this was the Elizabethan age – but rather to the fact that in those brutal times, physical strength prevailed.
In such a society, Katherina’s conversion is not self-abandonment but an embrace of life. Her final speech, stripped of its sexual specificity, is excellent advice to both partners in a relationship. John Lennon, who lived unhappily but loved well, said the same thing nearly four hundred years later in Mind Games: “Yes is the answer and you know that for sure/ Yes is the surrender you got to let it, you got to let it go.”
The original production sidestepped the issue of Petruchio’s treatment of Katherina with slam-bang pacing and high-gloss technical values. Muse’s production makes the relationship between the couple more palatable by igniting it at the first moment, when Petruchio, who has agreed to marry for money, is turned ardent at the sight of Kate. The Shrew, too, is smitten: even as she tries to scrub the hide off Petruchio with her verbal napalm, she smiles, as if she is giddy with the thought of a man who does not wilt and grow soft at the approach of her rage.
Peakes’ Petruchio is throughout a little more playful, a little more engaging and sweet than was the Petruchio played by Christopher Innvar two years ago. Innvar is a large man, and when he tussled with tiny Charlayne Woodard as Kate it was like seeing an adult carting around an unruly child. Peakes is more compact, and LeBeuf is almost as tall as he is; their struggle is at once more even and more sensual, as it involves more, and longer, skin-to-skin contact. Likewise, Innvar as Petruchio was all intimidation in confronting other men; Peakes is intimidating, too, but also charming and charismatic.
In keeping with Muse’s spin on the play, LeBeuf plays Katherina as a little more tractable than Woodard was in the original production. Woodard’s Katherina was a genuine termagant, fearsome as a badger. Petruchio’s response accordingly appeared more draconian, and the final conversion more dramatic. With LeBeuf, you get the sense that Katherina is lonely, and that from the outset she looks for the man who will help her make sense of her miserable world.
Muse keeps many elements from the 2007 production, including Narelle Sissons’ fabulous set (strategically designed display windows, split by a revolving door); the amusing scene in which Baptiste auctions Bianca off; the commercial references (which Muse underplays somewhat), and some of the fine 2007 actors, including in particular Deeker, Nelson, Eshelman, Todd Scofield and Erika Rose. These actors do terrific work, as do the new actors, including especially Peakes, LeBeauf and Shuman as the elderly suitor.
For me, though, the best part was the return of the fabulous Louis Butelli as Petruchio’s whacked-out servant Grumio. Grumio is a freakin’ lunatic, and Butelli plays him to perfection. Butelli, who regularly teaches a master class in Physical Comedy in New York, gives us a master class in laughing our bottoms off. Go ahead and take it; the tuition is free.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Muse
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
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The Taming of the Shrew
DCTS review – TOP PICK!
- Peter Marks . The Post