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
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
The Taming of the Shrew
DCTS review – TOP PICK!
- Peter Marks . The Post
It is a tragedy that audiences and reviewers think that cheap gags, flash sets and crude directing do any justice to Shakespeare. The beauty is in the language and the relationships, actions and circumstances that that language illustrates. There is too much Shakespeare performed, and way too much poor Shakespeare. Free or not, this was poor.
Great writing shouldn’t need much more than just that. It was like watching a bad school play. The lack of depth and skill meant that the message that the audience came away with was almost the antithesis of what Shakespeare was trying say.
I can’t decide what disturbs me most: the choices that director David Muse made about how this production should tell the story, the audience’s reaction to it, or this review.
Whatever the prevailing attitudes about women and their social status during Elizabethan England–and the fact that there was, in fact, an audience for John Fletcher’s “The Woman’s Prize” during Shakespeare’s lifetime suggests that even an Elizabethan audience would have been uneasy with Petruchio’s treatment of Kate–the fact that a modern audience could find a scene in which a father auctions off a daughter “amusing,” or torture techniques “straight out of the Gitmo handbook” entertaining indicates to me that we–as a society–haven’t come nearly as far as Tim Treanor seems to suppose.
The only satisfying ending to this play–since the text is what it is–is one that demonstrates what a terrible, perverse, and tragic thing it is when a human spirit is broken. The actors in this production were wonderful; I just wish the director had chosen to tell a different story, one that asked the audience to consider the damage that has been (and continues to be) inflicted upon women by a patriarchy that disavows their very humanity.
Women continue to literally be bought and sold at auction, physically and mentally abused by their husbands, and to be undervalued as human beings in nearly every nation on earth, and it saddens me that so few people seem disconcerted by a production that turns the degradation of a woman, as familiar as it still ought to be those of us who read a newspaper, into a slapstick “rom-com” romp.
Gene Barnes says
So nobody else seems to think it remarkable that this company, so assiduous in its presentations of “Hamlet” and “Pericles” in the past, would choose to cut the entire outer shell of this play? I’m speaking of the entire “Induction,” the set-up in which a drunken tinker is placed in a wealthy environment to confuse him, and for which the play “Taming of the Shrew” is an entertainment in a part of the deception. The whole scene was cut. Why? It’s not like it isn’t fun. Did the director not trust the Free-for-All audience with the added length?
Last year in Baltimore’s budget outdoor production at Evergreen, we got the Induction.
I wonder what else the Shakespeare Theatre Company plans to cut in its future productions.
I went with some Middle Schoolers last weekend and they loved it. Despite not understanding all the language, they got the story and the humor. What a pleasure to see young people enjoying Shakespeare (along with us adults!).
John Dellaporta says
I work in the Box Office at Shakespeare (in fact, I spoke with Lorraine on the phone); here’s my (personal) recommendation for getting tickets: try to come on the weekend, Friday night, either show Saturday, or the Sunday matinee. Our subscribers are offered the ability to reserve tickets in advance, but we restricted that access to weekday performances (and the first weekend) specifically so that more general public would have access to more seats on the more popular and accessible days. So keep hope! Give the line a try, “nice and early”, on one of the weekend shows and your odds will go way up! Hope to see you all there.
Jesse T says
Am I the only one who thought the chemistry between Petruchio and Kate (being Kate’s fault primarily) was sorely lacking?
That is my only complaint with the free-for-all this year is the ticket distribution. Carter Barron is a larger venue, which offered more tickets per show – I could almost always show up the night of and get in. Also, you could pick up free tickets at Carter Barron, at the Washington Post, or at the Shakespeare box office beginning at noon the day of. Now you have to line up for ticket distribution only at the theater box office, which are given out 2-hours prior to showtime. And people have begun queing as early as 3PM. How many of us have the ability to use a weekday afternoon waiting to get in for a free show? I hope the Shakespeare Theater rethinks the ticket distribution in the future if they are going to continue the Free-For-All at the Harman. Maybe online lottery so all have an equal chance at getting a ticket rather than spend hours in line only to be turned away. I do know for a fact that many people were turned away the first show on the 27th.
lorraine treanor says
I just spoke with someone in the box office who told me that when they open – 2 hours prior to the show – there is already a line for the tickets, and they have been selling out every show.
So “Get here nice and early.” was his advice.
Does anyone know how early people are generally lining up for this? That is, is there generally a major line when the box office starts distributing tickets 2 hours before the show?