To understand The Taming of the Shrew as Shakespeare intended, you must imagine it to be in a land – such as Shakespeare’s England – where the observance of gender roles was a matter of life and death. It did not flow from a belief that women could not rule (after all, who ruled England?) but from an understanding that responsibility in the household required the exercise of gross physical strength, both for productivity (most people were farmers) and for defense. Since there is no responsibility without authority, authority devolved to the physically stronger male gender. Kate accordingly was not a precursor of feminism, born three hundred and seventy years too early. She was a desperately unhappy woman, destined for an early grave without the miraculous intervention of Petruchio.
Thus to take Shrew out of Renaissance Europe and, as Pallas Theatre Collective does, move it to the Bayou country in Louisiana, set roughly now, is to drain it of context, and therefore to require a dozen compensating devices so that the play does not seem like a meditation on the virtues of sexism.
And here’s another thing: Cajun-flavored English, with its flattened diphthongs (“think” becomes “tink” or even “dink”, and “those” becomes the Brooklynese “dose”) and rising and falling like the bellow and coo of the bullfrog and the dove (two sounds which are pleasingly ubiquitous throughout the production) is perhaps not the optimum deliverer of Shakespearian English. Kate’s beautiful speech at the end – which with some modification and the substitution of “lover” and “beloved” for “wife” and “husband”, still resonates today – sounds pugnacious and, by our lights, undereducated.
These cavils aside, Pallas’ Shrew is interesting and fun. The story in brief: Hortensieaux (David Dubov) and Gremieaux (Brandon Mitchell) both pine for the hand of the lissome Bianca (Loren Bray). But Bianca’s mother Baptista (Jane Petkofsky) insists that before she allows Bianca to marry, she must marry off the termagant older sister Kate (Shannon Listol Wilson.) Luckily for the gentlemen, Petruchieaux (Gerrad Alex Taylor) hits town looking for a rich bride and big dowry. With a little extra financial inducement from Hortensieaux and Gremieaux, Petruchieaux sets his hat on Kate, who he will woo, win, wed and tame with a combination of sweet tongue and Gitmo-style tactics.
But here’s a complication: Lucentieaux (Jonathan Douglass), overhearing everything, decides that he must have Bianca. His clever servant Tranieaux (Luke Cieslewicz) hits on a scheme: Lucentieaux will disguise himself as a tutor in Latin and Greek (Baptista has decreed that her daughters shall be educated) and, having so gained access to Bianca, woo her on a one-to-one basis while he, Tranieaux, will disguise himself as Lucentieaux, and thereby obtain Baptista’s consent by boasting of his fabulous wealth. Hortensieaux, in the meantime, has a similar plan: he disguises himself as a music tutor. Regrettably, he knows no music.
Pallas, and director Ty Hallmark, do several things to make Petruchieaux’ plan of attack seem less mean-spirited and abusive than it might otherwise be. Their principal, and most effective, tactic is to cast the powerfully-built Wilson as Kate, so that when Petruchieaux tussles with her, it seems less like an assault and more like a wrestling match between two people who love to brawl. Wilson even allows a smile to cross her face when Petruchieaux grabs her in the first Act, as though she is saying to herself “finally, I’ve met a man who will test my mettle.”
Those of you who remember the formidable Christopher Innvar and the tiny Charlayne Woodard take on these roles in STC’s production at Harman seven years ago should prepare for a very different Shrew; when Wilson’s Kate, finally catching on, agrees to call the Sun the Moon if it is her husband’s wish that she do so, she throws him a little hip check, as if to say that she’s in on the joke. When Taylor’s Petruchieaux bursts out into rage, he throws a kung fu fit in the air, making himself seem not dangerous but ridiculous. Without changing a line of dialogue, the Pallas production makes it seem as though Kate’s insight relates to the society in which they live, and in the privacy of their home she will continue to be rambunctious and outspoken, though not miserable.
Among the actors, Mitchell (who also serves as dialect coach) as Gremieaux most consistently translates the Bard’s tropes into Cajun English, and it is a surprise and a delight to hear the familiar lines rendered as they might be by, for example, the great chef Paul Prudhomme. (Gremio is traditionally played by an older actor, and Mitchell imitates an old man’s gait and station, but his unlined face cannot be mistaken for aged. The effect is that Gremieaux seems like a young man who has, inexplicably, adopted the behaviors of an old man.) Gremieaux’s Cajun-salted English is sometimes difficult to understand, but it is of little moment, as Gremio is a minor character anyway.
The other actors do not consistently use the dialect (some of them do not at all) but it is just as well; clarity is more important than consistency, and if everyone sounded like Mitchell we might lose the thread of the play. Taylor and Wilson both turn up the Cajun and turn it back down, depending on the circumstance; the versatile Dubov employs it lightly as Hortensieaux and more firmly when he plays Vincentieaux, the father of Lucentieaux; when he is Hortensieaux masquerading as the music tutor he uses it not at all, speaking instead in a rather prissy, snooty version of the Queen’s English.
Hallmark deviates from tradition in one other way: she makes Baptista a woman. The traditional Baptiste is a tough-as-nails character who enforces his will on the unruly mob around him through his steely authority. When Baptista is played by a woman, as she was memorably by Sarah Marshall in Folger’s Wild West production, she is usually tough and dangerous. Petkofsky, however, plays her as frail and vulnerable, which does two things. First, it makes it clear that her authority comes from her place in society, and not from her force of character. Secondly, it makes her relationship with Kate more touching and personal. When Baptiste is a man – or a powerful woman – the conflict with Kate is like the rebellion of a subject against a ruler. In this production, however, Kate’s conflict with her mother takes on a woundedness, and the younger woman seems betrayed. After all, Baptista has been through what Kate is now experiencing. Why can’t she be more sympathetic?
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Closes October 26, 2014
Pallas Theatre Collective at
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Road SE
Washington, DC 20020
Added: Nov 1 and 2
North Bethesda UMC
10100 Old Georgetown Rd
Bethesda, MD 20814
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
As those who’ve seen Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate know, there is great musicality in Shrew, and Pallas periodically livens things up with a fiddle band which features Andrew Keller (who also takes on a couple of roles, including a stranger employed by Tranieaux to pose as Lucentieaux’s father) on guitar, Sara Bickler (who is a tailor and also the widow who finally marries Hortensieaux) on percussion, and Cieslewicz and Jon Jon Johnson (also playing Petruchieaux’s comic servant, Grumieaux) on fiddle. Occasionally Bray, who has a terrific voice, will sing. They play Cajun folk songs; the sound is modest but the skill is considerable; when the opening was delayed they improvised an instrumental, with Johnson taking the lead. Javier del Pilar, playing the servant Biondelleaux correctly as a stone moron, completes the strong cast.
Pallas Theatre Collective, as it has in the past, shows great ambition in tackling this formidable Shakespearian comedy, and by and large it succeeds. I’ve said this before but I’m happy to say it here: Pallas gives you a bigger bang for your buck than a lot of area theaters. It deserves more than the modest crowds it has been attracting.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare . Directed by Ty Hallmark, assisted by Emily Sucher. Featuring Gerrad Alex Taylor, Shannon Listol Wilson, Jane Petkofsky, Loren Bray, Jonathan Douglass, Luke Cieslewicz, Brandon Mitchell (who served as dialect coach), David Dubov, Jon Jon Johnson, Javier del Pilar, Sara Bickler and Andrew Keller. Costume design by Brian J. Shaw . Sound design: Kevin O’Connell . Lighting design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Props design: Chelsea Mayo . Fight choreography: Chris Niebling . Stage manager: Clem Trott . Produced by Pallas Theatre Collective . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Closes Nov 2
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts not only funny and feisty but the play’s ethical conundrum is negotiated and transformed.