Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Taming of the Shrew is an extraordinary production, one of the most original and well thought out presentations of Shakespeare I’ve seen in years. Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has been generating revolutionary theatre in New York, and you can clearly see what all the buzz is about with this all-male production.
Shakespeare’s original story is well trod; unmarriageable Katherina is hastily wed by her father to travelling Petruchio, who wishes mostly for a fat dowry. Petruchio ‘kills her with kindness’, eventually taming her, and, at play’s end, she becomes an amicable- and obedient- wife. Earlier this season, Kiss Me Kate, the 1949 Broadway Cole Porter musical based on the play, was presented by this very company, (and, it should be added, a wonderful production it was). In short, you’ve had the chance to see this story told in two vastly different ways by the same company- within the space of a year. Brave and braver from the folks at STC, to offer us two Shrews within a twelve-month span.
And yet, this Shrew could not be more different than the happy froth and bubbles of Kiss Me Kate: it’s a horse of a different color entirely. Director Iskandar has diverted attention onto other, less well known characters, most notably Katherina’s sister Bianca. Where Bianca is often portrayed as an idealized version of an obedient woman- the docile daughter which Katherina’s father much favors- instead, we see behind Bianca’s Barbie facade to see her gradually coming to admire her sister’s forthright manner and bold challenges to be ‘as other women’.
In large part, this Taming is about the artifice of what we do to attract people, to make them like us, to fit in to society’s preconceived norm of what men and women ‘should’ be. Yet by casting all the females in the play- Katherina, Bianca, and the Countess- by male actors playing women, it opens up an audience to see the text more fully than if the casting were the traditional. This is no mere historical recreation of what Shakespeare and his all-male company would have portrayed.
Scenes moved and rearranged smoothly, on a stream of some glorious music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho,) the romantic story as originally written is now skewed for an audience to reinterpret what transpires: is Bianca really that comely, or are her wiles more artificial? Is Katherina just as artificial in her utter rejection of femininity? Is it ever possible to change ourselves fully, drop the personas we are wrapped in and identified by, and recast ourselves to be the people we secretly wish to be? These are questions that couldn’t be more timely.
Both director and cast have done an admirable job peering into the corners of this play to come up with fresh new ways for us to see familiar characters. Oliver Thornton is utterly radiant as Bianca, who comes to see her sister Katherina as not a mere impediment to her marriage, but as someone to emulate. As Katherina, Maulik Pancholy brings a far more nuanced portrayal to a woman now more clearly in pain. Whether playing Vincentio, a coutourier, Gremio the lascivious Cardinal, or roustabout cook Curtis, André De Shields is easily the most watchable fellow on stage.
Peter Gadiot as Petruchio is the most faithful to the traditional version of Petruchio, but his glee at taming his wife is never meanspirited, and there is palpable joy between he and Katherina. Special note must be made of Rick Hammerly as The Contessa; his song of grief at the graveside is one of the most moving of the many of Sheik’s fine songs. And in the comic role of A Pendant from Mantua, Mr Hammerly fairly walks away with each small scene he’s in; I’ve never seen anyone have so much fun with a pair of gloves and a fluffy white wig.
It should be mentioned here that the half-hour intermission is part of the play- and absolutely not to be missed. Whatever you do, do not go to the lobby or the bathroom during intermission. Do what you must, but get up on that stage, sit on a velvet cushion and watch the interplay of characters at the wedding banquet. You’ll miss some important plot tidbits if you look away for even a moment. And you might be handed a cake lollipop or slice of wedding cake, supplied by La Tosca restaurant.
The opulent design of the show, by scenic designer Jason Sherwood and lighting designer Seth Reiser, cannot be overstated. The set is a chameleon, for everything is movable and unfixed: the glorious three story gilded set with azure terrazzo tiles revolves. Look closely and you will see the faint outlines of a glossy fashion model within those tiles. You’ll have to look fast, for the set, with its multiple staircases and balconies reminiscent of the work of artist MC Escher, changes as quickly as the character’s minds. Nothing is permanent, nothing is set in stone.
Even the costumes are unmoored. Characters wear clothes as befit their stations, but historic periods are intermingled. To Each His Own Gifts is the message intended with this visual smorgasbord. It’s a beautiful universe: from extravagant medieval furs to 1820s cutaway coats and New Look Dior skirts, it’s a time traveler’s delight from costumer Loren Shaw.
The Taming of the Shrew
closes June 26, 2016
Details and tickets
Everything onstage is sumptuous: glittery, embroidered and impeccably tailored. Here, the schism between male and female is played with a smile; the men are dandified as peacocks and the women are at first symbols of desire or rebellion; but look closely and you’ll see chinks in the armor on both sides. Katharina’s transformation at the end is mirrored in her final (and rather brilliant) attire.
This Taming of the Shrew isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. For one thing, it’s three hours long including that fantastic intermission; it’s even longer if you come for the preshow twenty minutes before the doors open. And you’ll want to know the play’s plot, for the joy of with Iskandar has done here is in what he has done with it, how he’s twisted and turned it and made it new. It’s a well-worn jacket worn inside out so that you can see the intricate lining. It will make you think about the nature of identity for a couple of days after. So if you want to just see a standard Kate and a standard Petrucio wooing her, this won’t be what you’d expect.
Then again, exceptional theatre never should be what you’re expecting.
Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare . Music by Duncan Sheik . Director: Ed Sylvanus Iskandar . Cast: Bernard White as Baptista/Tailor; Maulik Pancholy as Katharina; Oliver Thornton as Bianca/Haberdasher; Andre de Shields as Vincentio/Gremio/Cook; Telly Leung as Lucentio; Matthew Russel as Tranio; Tom Story as Hortensio; Rick Hammerly as The Contessa/A Pendant; Peter Gadiot as Petruchio; Gregory Lingington as Grumio; Drew Foster as Biondello; Ensemble: James Crichton; Stephon Elrod; Jamison Foreman; Jackson Knight Pierce; Brian Reisman; Nicholas Yenson . Choreography: Chase Brock . Costume Designer: Loren Shaw . Scenic Design: Jason Sherwood . Lighting Design: Seth Reiser . Sound Design: Jeremy S Bloom . Music Supervisor/Arranger: David Dabbon . Music Director: Jody Schum . Production Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.