The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 16, 2008
The Taming of the Shrew is a play that often makes me uneasy; the reason why is contained in its title, which promises us a "shrew" who needs to be "tamed," which should give every 21st century American some pause. Petruchio, the tamer, says of his fiancee Katherine, "She is my goods, my chattels" and the modus operandi he uses to bend her to his will resembles nothing so much as breaking a wild horse.
But, as one expects from Shakespeare, there is much in Shrew that is poetic and/or wise, and the play is a ribald, raucous good time, at least when done without adornment and apology, which is exactly how director Joe Leo is serving it up in his new production of it for Misfit Toys Repertory Company. Leo does three things here that strike me as very smart: He keeps the play in its time and place. He retains the original play-within-a-play structure, which posits the story of Petruchio and Kate as a bawdy entertainment devised by some passing players, put on as a practical joke for an alcoholic ne'er-do-well called Christopher Sly (and Leo keeps Sly with us until the end of the play, which is seldom done, giving the last word to Sly himself, who exits determined to "tame" his own wife as he has learnt from the comedy he just saw; read more about Leo's dramaturgy here).
Probably most important, he gives us a Petruchio and Kate who come to both like and love one another, notwithstanding the one's opportunism and greed and the other's unbridled misanthropy. In Nathaniel Kressen and Fabiola Reis, the production has a lively, likable, sexy pair of lovers for us to root for, and we observe the precise moment when the two realize that they've fallen for each other.
(It occurs to me that you may need a synopsis of the play; here's one from SparkNotes.)
The entire production plays out on a mostly bare stage whose only dressing is a bench plus some occasional props. Period and status/character are established through the use of Helen Fey's excellent and exquisite costumes, which sometimes whimsically remind us of the commedia dell'arte style associated with the musicalized Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate, but mostly feel rooted firmly in the Elizabethan Era.
Kressen and Reis are among the strongest members of this uneven cast, and so Petruchio and Kate's story predominates; Reis may in fact be the best Kate I've ever seen, with an underlying intelligence and humor that makes her eminently sympathetic. Other standouts in the company include Sean Demers as Sly, Warren Katz as Gremio (elderly suitor to Kate's sister Bianca), and Bryan Webster as Kate and Bianca's father Baptista. Leo himself is delightful in the cameo role of Vincentio, and his scene with Kressen and Reis (where Petruchio devilishly commands Kate to treat the old man Vincentio as if he were a fair maiden) is one of the highlights of the show.
Leo's staging is fast and funny, never missing an opportunity for a gag or some shtick. Shakespeare's puns are punched up for comic effect, and antic scenes like the welcoming "dinner party" for Kate at Petruchio's house are amped up to the level of circus (literally: food is juggled, plates are spun, and servants clownishly collide).All serves to remind us that Shrew, upsetting as it may be to contemporary consciences, is a lark, and a goof, and indeed always has been and always will be. Leo lets us laugh at the frivolity without a single pang of P.C. worry. Well done.