The all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park, with Janet McTeer as the macho Petruchio and Cush Jumbo as the shrew he starves into obedience, seems to be working hard to make the play more palatable. Director Phyllida Lloyd starts by evoking a certain presidential candidate and former beauty pageant owner.
The play begins with a beauty pageant, and the first person we hear is in voiceover: “One of these girls is going to take home a huge prize. I mean it’s unbelievable!”
Contestants in sparkling red dresses then twirl batons and sing “like caged birds.”
Although Shakespeare set his play in Padua, the pageant seems to be taking place at a traveling carnival that’s made a stop somewhere in the American West, judging by the set by Mark Thompson. Thompson also designed the costumes, cladding the male characters mostly in snazzy double-piece suits, as if they (or all men?) are gangsters.
As Petruchio, the British actress McTeer is all exaggerated swagger and spit and sneer in black leather and battered black cowboy hat, sometimes grabbing his crotch and, in one memorable moment, taking a leak.
Shakespeare’s typically convoluted comic plot is whittled down to under two hours without an intermission, which gives the director time to insert a monologue about half-way through by the character named Gremio (Judy Gold), who declares it “inappropriate” that the director is a woman: “Who the hell does she think she is? Telling me where to stand, how to act, what to wear?…Now we’ve got a broad running for President, another one telling chicks to lean in.”
Lloyd, whose claim to fame and fortune on this side of the Atlantic is her helming of the massive Broadway hit Mamma Mia, also directed two inspired all-female Shakespeare productions, Julius Caesar and Henry IV, first at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and then at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The conceit of her Caesar was that inmates were staging the play in a women’s prison. If it wasn’t a precise fit with the text, the production was not only impressively acted (by a cast that included Cush Jumbo); it also provoked the audience to contemplate the similarities in power dynamics in politics, in prison and between genders.
Surely, the director is once again attempting to use a Shakespeare play to prompt the audience to think about gender politics, but the result feels more like her Mamma Mia than her Julius Caesar – a pieced-together, awkwardly integrated entertainment that can be enjoyed as a whole, as long it’s not overly scrutinized. The Taming of the Shrew is supposed to be a comedy, and the productions I’ve seen that have worked best are those that both emphasize the physical humor and invest Petruchio with an underlying humanity and loving nature that is not automatically evident in the text. As Shakespearean scholar Anne Barton wrote in 1974:
“On the stage, unless the actor deliberately coarsens his part, Petruchio comes over far less as an aggressive male out to bully a refractory wife into total submission than he does as a man who genuinely prizes Katherina and, by exploiting an age-old and basic antagonism between the sexes, maneuvers her into an understanding of his nature and also her own.”
That’s not the way it plays at the Delacorte. The sexism is too obvious, and too edged in something ugly. McTeer, who won a Tony for portraying Nora in A Doll’s House, gave a credible portrayal of a woman disguising herself as a man in the 2011 film “Albert Nobbs.” On stage now, she is a caricature of The Human Male, and while much of it is humorous, there is nothing funny about her torturing of Katherina. Given the set-up, it’s hard to object too strenuously to the (silent) tagged-on ending that’s at variance with Shakespeare’s.
As something of a curtain call, The Taming of the Shrew ends with the cast loosening up and singing Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”–
“I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation
You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation
A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s what I’m gonna do” —
as if to be as one with the audience members, who are surely thinking: It’s free, it’s in Central Park, and on a beautiful day, what else matters?
The Taming of the Shrew is on stage at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (the official address is 81 Central Park West, New York, NY 10023) through June 26.
Tickets and details
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare . Directed by Phyllida Lloyd . Movement Director Ann Yee .
Set and Costume Design by Mark Thompson . Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel . Sound Design by Mark Menard . Hair and Wig Design by Leah J. Loukas . Music Supervision and Original Music Composed by Sam Davis .
Fight Director Lisa Kopitsky . Cast: Candy Buckley, Donna Lynne Champlin, Morgan Everitt, Rosa Gilmore, Judy Gold, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Cush Jumbo, Teresa Avia Lim, Janet McTeer, Adrienne C. Moore, Anne L. Nathan, Gayle Rankin, Pearl Rhein, Leenya Rideout, Jackie Sanders, Stacey Sargeant, and Natalie Woolams-Torre . Produced by the Public Theatre . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.