Who says you can’t make The Shrew work? I did. And I’ll eat my hat. The last time I had seen a truly stunning production of The Taming of the Shrew was in New York’s Central Park, a Joe Papp production, with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in the leads. Theirs was a true match. And now we have Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris who, as husband and wife in real life, have given us Petruchio and Kate, who, fight as they may, recognize something fascinating and deeply stirring in the other.
When Meryl Streep made her first entrance, she grabbed a high bar and chinned herself, making it clear in a few reps that she was more than a match for any man. Norris gives us her take on the character in the same space of time, by sitting alone and silently downing shots of whisky in a saloon. Streep had shown us Kate’s brazen strength. Norris wants us to know the character’s loneliness and desperation.
There are plenty of problems in producing Shakespeare’s original play, but director Aaron Posner with his amazing cast to a man (and woman!) just about solves them all. He sets the work in the Wild West of the 1880’s and shows us a society where men are rough and women must toughen up to survive the frontier. It’s a world of gunslingers and grasping greed. So when Petruchio enters and woos with words and humor, not only do we buy (and forgive) his financial designs but we also recognize why he immediately has the restless, tempestuous Kate thinking this guy is damn interesting and worth watching. Nickell’s Petruchio proves as wily as a coyote and more crazy-foolish than even Norris’ Kate.
Most everyone packs a gun and Posner has some fun “playing fast and loose” with gender roles. He gives us a world where a woman has to be as ready as a man would be to shoot a rattlesnake or a sneak. He has cast Sarah Marshall as Baptista, the mother of Kate and Bianca, instead of the father Shakespeare penned. Marshall plays her as a thorny old matriarch, and her rifle rules the saloon. Marshall’s strong interpretation explains daughter Kate’s furious power struggle with her mother. It also provides an added dimension to the role of Baptista. With one daughter lashing out dangerously and the other attracting horny cowboys, who buzz around her like bees around a honey pot, mom has to ride herd from sun up to sun down. Then she’s at the bar, going shot for shot, out drinking the men. Marshall’s Baptista convinces she could sure fix a wagon wheel, and the actress employs her apt comic skills as the hard drinking, exhausted mother.
Likewise, Holly Twyford plays Tranio, a dutiful spinster, who, at her master’s request, disguises herself as city-slicker Vincentio, to woo in proxy Baptista’s sweet daughter, Bianca. As she struts and puffs her cigar, with two fingers affixed in the waistcoat pocket of her loudly checkered suit, Twyford‘s Tranio cuts loose from her prescribed, straitlaced role as an unwed woman.
The key issue in any production is how to sell the original play’s Elizabethan preaching that in proper conjugal relations, “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper.” That kind of thinking doesn’t go down well today.
I’d like to see Norris push further her character’s transformation in that tricky last speech, and make Kate keep trying to figure out what is this odd institution of marriage all about. To my mind, in an otherwise superbly constructed performance, the actress copped out by rushing the speech and adding too large a dollop of contemporary cynicism.
Nonetheless, all the women in this cast show they are forever pushing the boundaries of their roles as they carve out a new “frontier” order. Even the role of younger sister Bianca is given more spunk than usual. Sarah Mollo-Christensen handles both the men in her life and her out-of-control sister with a certain sharp humor – even when she gets lassoed and strung up like a calf by the crazed, jealous Kate.
One of the best scenes in this fresh production allows for the famous first meeting of Petruchio and Kate to be one driven by words. There is plenty of comic business, including an all out brawl later between the leads, but in this scene, the courting progresses not by the usual gimmicky slapstick but through Shakespeare’s dialogue. Posner has even directed the scene to unfold somewhat slowly, giving both actors time to eyeball and size each other up appreciatively.
Another brilliant choice is Posner’s inclusion of music by Cliff Eberhardt and the creation of a blind bard in the telling of the story. Eberhardt supplies not just musical transitions but the character of a chorus, who comments and eggs on the other characters.
Eberhardt also underscores certain silent scenes that have been added, creating opportunities for the characters to demonstrate key psychological moments that Shakespeare neglected to write. Bianca is given a chance to fall in love for the first time, and we see the romance blossom. Kate literally gets to “unpack” new feelings as she lifts out of a box an outfit, complete with a pair of new cowboy boots, given by her husband, that shows he gets her values and her fashion sense.
Eberhardt’s musical compositions and acoustical guitar playing are delicious in their own right. There’s something both clever and soulful in his songwriting, and he is willing to meet the other characters more than half way, using punchy lyrics to move the play forward. His gravelly voice on the low end also expresses a rich sweetness, as if Tom Waits melded with Ritchie Havens.
The set by Tony Cisek, with its wagon-wheel-and-elk-horn chandelier, carries us back to the Wild West of our imaginations. There’s a great balcony and long staircase that not only suggests Baptista’s living quarters above the saloon but allows for a great cowboy stunt fall. Helen Q. Huang may have trailblazed a new fashion craze with her fanciful western costumes. Jennifer Shriever captures the dusty light of an old western saloon and punctuates the actors’ many humorous asides with just the right pops of brightness.
I’ve always had trouble keeping track of and caring about the secondary characters in the play, but not with this cast. I’ve already mentioned Holly Twyford, but I’d like to suggest that all aspiring actors watch her mesmerizing moment-to-moment performance as the repressed Tranio, who not only communicates her enjoyment and freedom in cross-dressing but who also suffers silently as the loyal female companion thrown over for a younger, prettier gal. She’s an actress who proves the old adage, “there are no small roles…”
The wooers all woo well and create crystal-clear portraits. Marcus Kyd makes his dopey seduction on a guitar both humorous and touching as the beau who loses out, while Thomas Keegan as Lucentio charms as the dashing lover who wins Bianca. Craig Wallace brings both humor and dignity to the role of Gremio, Bianca’s other suitor. He’s crude and rude, but when he comes up against a suitor who plays the better hand, he bows out of the game like a gentleman.
We’ve seen the kind of primping and flouncing schtick that Danny Scheie delivers in his over the top physical portrayal of servant Grumio many times before. But no one can hold onto the sounds of a drawl more exquisitely. James Gardiner is Biondello, Lucentio’s “not as smart” servant, is just as funny.
Everyone in the fine ensemble delivers Shakespeare with ease and verve. “Totally understandable,” nine-year old Anna, who sat next to me, pronounced. “I would recommend this to my friends.” I concur.
So, if you’re spendin’ your time laying’ ‘round town, two step on over for a night of delicious characterization and a show that’s rootin’-tootin’ fun. You’ll want to join Eberhardt and the cast in the line dance at the end.
The Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Aaron Posner
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission
Shrew Songs by Cliff Eberhardt
This limited edition collection of rustic, heartfelt songs is written and performed by acclaimed singer-songwriter Cliff Eberhardt. The songs, from and inspired by Folger’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, are performed nightly on stage by Eberhardt in the role of The Blind Balladeer.
- Lisa Troshinsky . Washington Diplomat
- Christine Kowal . BroadwayWorld
- Diane Holcomb Wilshere . Accidental Thespian
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
- Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
- Chris Klimek . City Paper
Winnefred Ann Frolik . WomanAroundTown
Jonathan Padget . Metro Weekly
Rachel Eisley . BrightestYoungThings
Gail Choochan . Fredericksburg.com
Xandra Weaver . ShowBizRadio
- Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Julia L. Exline . DCMetroTheaterArts