The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 31, 2008
The Taming of the Shrew is, to my mind, the most problematic of Shakespeare's plays nowadays. Its main premise is that a wife is essentially her husband's property: Petruchio, the hero of the piece, actually calls his bride, Katharina (the "shrew" of the title), "my goods, my chattels"; and the piece ends with the now-tamed Kate entreating women to "place your hands below your husband's foot." Sure, it's funny in places, but what has this bawdy but hopelessly dated romantic comedy got to say to an audience in 2008?
Happily, director Tony Speciale finds a way to make Shrew accessible and even reasonably relevant in a new production under the auspices of Classic Stage Company's Young Company. Speciale is a third-year M.F.A. directing candidate at Columbia University, and the actors in the play are also graduate students at Columbia; this presentation is a fine showcase for these young theatre artists as well as, by design, a splendid introduction to Shakespeare for area students. The play has been shortened to 90 minutes (no intermission), and the performance times are mostly matinees; a group from the Museum School was in attendance (and made up the majority of the audience) at the show I attended.
Speciale's conceit is that Petruchio and Kate are kindred souls—outcasts and loners, sharing a wild punk aesthetic. They fall madly in love the minute they lay eyes on each other. Kila Packett, as Petruchio, lets us see behind the emotional armor he's set up for himself via a macho tough guy facade, while Anna Madigan's Kate, removing for the first time a ski mask that has covered up her lovely features, does what Ethel Merman used to call the "goon look," melting from the inside out at first glance of her beloved. Packett and Madigan, who are both excellent, then proceed to play out a grand love/hate romance a la Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing or, perhaps more aptly, Sam and Diane from Cheers. The script supports the concept most of the way through (the ultimate submission of the woman to the man still feels jarring, however), and for once, Petruchio's wooing and defanging of the bitter woman he's decided to marry for money feels sweet and deserved.
The rest of the tale benefits from savvy cutting, fun anachronistic insertions, and some masterful casting choices. (There's a synopsis of The Taming of the Shrew here, if you need one.) The framing device involving Christopher Sly is excised; Kate's sister Bianca's suitors are presented in entirely contemporary terms (with Hortensio, in disguise as Bianca's music teacher, getting major props from the audience with his singing, which pays homage to a very current music star who, I must confess, I didn't recognize—but the students in the crowd totally did). The 11 actors comprising the cast all do strong work, with John William Schiffbauer's earnest and likable Lucentio and Nick Maccarone's exuberantly fervent Hortensio especially memorable; Devon Jordan (a female actor) is terrific as Bianca's other suitor, her old neighbor Gremio. Speciale's neatest touch of all is the reimagination of Kate and Bianca's father, Baptista, as instead their mother, and Meg McLynn makes the most of the role, turning the old stiff into a lively and interesting individual. Plus having Kate married off by a female rather than a male parent helps soften some of the piece's chauvinist edge.
Speciale's staging is lively, fast-paced, and exciting, filled with rowdy battles (well-choreographed by Adam Rihacek), comical chase scenes, and nonstop movement that never come at the expense of clear and understandable performances of the Bard's often lovely poetry. The show is necessarily presented on the set of CSC's current mainstage production, New Jerusalem, and Speciale and his designers Russel Schramm (set), Oana Botez-Ban (costumes), and Tyler Hall (lighting) have done an outstanding job of adapting what they've been given into a fun and evocative environment for their show. Much of their set consists of tapestries and carpets placed strategically to both decorate and define the space—an excellent strategy, and one that allows Speciale to provide brief, delightful transitions that propel the action forward with well-chosen pop songs as background music.
It is, all in all, a charming and very entertaining rendition of a play that I find generally rankles rather than amuses. I'm not sure that The Taming of the Shrew can ever itself be tamed in 2008—its foundations are too fully based in a view of marriage and womankind that has long since been discredited and abandoned. But if we must have one, let us have this one, which locates a surprising and sexy love story at the center of the piece, and provides a thoroughly delightful showcase for all of the young theatre artists who have brought it to life.