The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
March 18, 2007
Vigorous and bold, Edward Hall's all-male Propeller Theatre company makes an exciting return to BAM with their production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. With brave physicality, a precise and aggressive approach to the text, and relentless energy, the production feels lean and fast even though it lasts nearly three hours. Director Hall makes The Taming of the Shrew feel like a classic and dependable comedy—which is no small feat considering the challenges of this fraught play.
The comedy, written early in Shakespeare's career, is considered to be one of the "problem plays," which is to say that the play does not seem well suited to the sensibilities of a modern audience. In the case of The Taming of the Shrew, the problem is how to keep an audience laughing when the main plot is the domination of a strong-willed woman, to turn her from a "shrew" to an obedient wife. The woman is Katherine, elder of two sisters and known as a "shrew" for her temper. Her younger and more compliant sister, Bianca, has a brace of willing suitors, but their father declares that Bianca will marry no one before Katherine is wed, which seems an unlikely prospect.
To try to clear their way to Bianca, two of her suitors decide to pay a rough man from out of town, named Petruchio, to take Katherine as his wife. He agrees and goes about not to woo Katherine but rather to break her. After being given to Petruchio in marriage by her father, Katherine is whisked off to what Petruchio calls his "taming school." His techniques to break Katherine's spirit include denying her food and rest and humiliating her in front of others. In one of his soliloquies, Petruchio shares his strategy with the audience, even going so far as to challenge us to do better than he:
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And 'tis my hope to end successfully.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper's call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;
Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I'll find about the making of the bed;
And here I'll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets:
Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverend care of her;
And in conclusion she shall watch all night:
And if she chance to nod I'll rail and brawl
And with the clamour keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness;
And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak: 'tis charity to show.
While these tactics may not be defined as torture by the current administration, I think it is fair to say that this material might trouble an audience's ability to laugh and enjoy what is, for the most part, a comedy. There are, however, two important elements in Hall's production that avoid the pitfalls of this play while still remaining true to the story, warts and all.
First, Hall makes great use of the play's framing device—an element often cut or neglected in productions I've seen. Most all of The Taming of the Shrew is actually a play-within-a-play. In the first scene, a drunken, brutish tinker named Christopher Sly passes out and his friends seize upon this opportunity to play a trick on him: they will bring him to a lush room and, when he awakes, have their co-conspirators treat him as if he is a noble Lord and they his servants. A play called "The Taming of the Shrew" is then presented to him for his entertainment and, therefore, to us.
Shakespeare's play as written does not return to Sly—a frame is introduced but never completed. Hall and co-adaptor Roger Warren make ingenious use of this frame by taking it a step further: rather than meeting Sly in an anonymous pub, he is introduced as a drunken groom late to his own wedding, arriving only to pass out in front of his guests. Therefore, the trick that is played upon him is not just some friends having fun at his expense, but rather a sharp lesson: the play is a story for his benefit. And to further impress upon him what follows, Sly is swept into the action to play Petruchio. Unlike the original text, Hall and Warren borrow a few lines from elsewhere in the play to return to Sly at the end, closing the frame in a very satisfying way that punctuates why the story has been told. It is at once a simple idea and a remarkable piece of problem-solving by Hall, giving the story of The Taming of the Shrew a helpful context.
Second, the fact that the play is performed by an all male company—a matter of law and convention in Shakespeare's time, but a stylized choice in ours—also serves to soften the edge of the violence and cruelty. Which is not to say that this production pulls its punches—nary a blow is spared. But the framing device gives a reason for the all-male company: Sly's mischievous friends who are performing "The Taming of the Shrew" for him are all men—and not men who undergo a large transformation to pass as women. Indeed, the Katherine of this production (Simon Scardifield) with his bleached-blond hair and defiant snarl looks like a "White Wedding" era Billy Idol. Perhaps that is why, when Petruchio pulls Katherine by the hair or throws "her" onto the table, the shock of this violence is more theatrical and less immediate.
Clearly I could go on and on, but I will close by saying that Hall is presenting a great, and perhaps rare, opportunity to enjoy and laugh at this play as a comedy rather than simply analyze it as a period piece. As this is my first time seeing Propeller, I am very impressed by the uniform talent and full-bodied commitment of their ensemble and the inventiveness of director Hall. I hope to see their production of Twelfth Night, which runs in repertory with this play, before they leave town.