The reversal in wording of Taming of the Shrew is not so much for a feminist message as for opening our minds. Get set for a bracing cocktail with a blast of Shakespeare’s bawdy at the Thrust Inn. Sexual innuendo intended.
In Shrewing of the Tamed, Francesca Chilcote and Laurie J. Wolf, an associate professor and director of theatre at The College of William and Mary are on to something here in giving us an extremely lively, slapstick adaptation of Shakespeare’s original text, rich with Elizabethan sexual slang, and acted out in the Italionate style of the Theatre of Physicality.
In the program notes, Chilcote asserts that she is exploring how male/female relationships may start out as competitions but end up transformations. In other words, who is Kate? Is she really a shrew? Where is the misunderstanding between who Kate is and who she is reputed to be? What’s illusion? What’s reality?
To ease us into all this mind-bending stuff and more, the adapters throw in the rarely performed frame story, allowing aesthetic distance for the performers to comment comically on the performance. A drunken bum, Christopher Sly (Greg Benson) is tricked into believing he has been asleep for 15 years and needs to see a play about how to handle headstrong women.
A play within a play is thus performed for Sly and his wife who sit in the “Reserved” front row seats of the theater-in-the-round in the Fort Fringe blackbox. But don’t try to take those sign posted seats. You may get your ears boxed by the raucous-voiced Barkeep (Connor J Hogan), for these madcap actors are committed to audience interaction. It’s a good idea to arrive early to read and absorb the program notes to sort out who’s who in the double casting, as posted later in this review to help. It gets confusing with five actors double-playing a host of characters.
You may know the plot of how madbrained Petruchio’s whirlwind wooing (actor CJ Bergin), kills with kindness, by mixing witty flattery with flagrant abuse, to wear down Katherine’s feisty resistance, (enacted by the multi-talented Chilcote, one of the adaptors). But what’s new is that this reduced Shakespearean battle of wits, directed by Kristen Pilgrim, is acted out in a totally knock-about, wild style. We see how Kate is denied sleep, starved and passionately loved in a steamy, farcical way until she becomes an obedient, loving wife, willing to swear the sun is the moon, and an old man is a young virgin, if Petruchio says so.
Shrewing focuses on the physical way the taming is done, not the accomplishment itself.
You see elements of commedia dell’arte. The Eizabethan period costuming is exaggerated, as exemplified by Petrucchio’s-loose linen blouse, doublets and wide-striped pantaloons. The supporting characters Tranny-o (Connor Hogan) and Grumio (Keegan Cassady) are zannies, who use bottles as blatant phallus symbols.
In one of the most hilarious sequences, Petruchio declares that he must have Katherine for his wife by physically throwing her on the floor. For the church wedding, he enters wearing a Bacchus-like, grotesque, mask. During the wedding ceremony, Tranny-o and Grumio narrate the proceedings while Petruchio and Katherine pantomime the ceremony on top of the bar (a plank supported by crates and barrels). At the end of the wedding ceremony, the virile groom slings the ever-rebellious bride over his shoulder and drags her out prostrate on the floor. Thus, the entire courtship turns into exaggerated, sexy wrestling matches, filled with boisterous calisthenics. We see the power of Shakespeare’s words acted out.
The climactic wedding banquet scene justifies the strong feminist thread in the twisted title Shrewing of the Tamed. For who can deny that Katherine really is acting or prevaricating to please the guy she’s crazy about. Therein lies the paradox. In the famous “Fie, Fie,” soliloquy at the wedding banquet, Chilcote, as an actress, captures the nuances commendably and beautifully. Katherine plays to the audience by circling the arena-staging with sweeping movements and expressive gestures, speaking the speech from the heart.
Then another wonderful, surprising twist to the text is added: Petrucchio joins in the masquerade and speaks the closing couplets as a toast to equality between the sexes. “My mind hath been as big as one of yours,/My heart as great, my reason haply more,/To bandy word for word and frown for frown ;/But now, I see our lances are but straws,/Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,/That seeming to be most which we indeed least are./”
This staged version is filled with many beautiful moments filled with humanity that send us out satisfied. For no way could this macho-man Petruchio live in harmony with a totally tamed Katherine for a wife. The wonder of the transformation comes across clear and loud.
But this staging is like brainstorming with an overabundance of physical ideas for stage business. This imaginative band of players needs to select more and do less. I wish I could give the Unruly Women a 5, but a heartfelt 4 is just right. It’s resoundingly worth a go-and-see.
Note: The Unruly Women consist of five rowdy players: Francesca Chilcote as The Player and Kate; CJ Bergin as The Lord/Petruchio; Connor Hogan, The Barkeep/Tranny-o; Keegan Cassady, The Huntsman/Grumio; and Greg Benson as Sly/Baptista, (Kate’s father).
The Shrewing of the Tamed has 4 more performances at The Shop – Fort Fringe, 607 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC.