Shakespeare Theatre's The Taming of the Shrew

When I moved to DC the Shakespeare Theatre quickly became one of my favorite companies. Everything I have seen there has been at the best, excellent, and at the worst, solid. The Taming of the Shrew rests on the solid side of that. Not every choice works for me, but it is still an enjoyable night of theatre.

Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman creates a wonderful world within which to stage this play. It is a modern take, emphasizing the commercial aspect of marriage. Padua is a glittering city, Baptista is a well-dressed business man, the wooing and wedding feels like it is done in a marketplace. The production thoroughly makes use of this setting, resulting in many clever moments.

Lisa Birnbaum is a high-heeled, skirted Bianca, placed literally on a pedestal as wooers pass by and try to win her affections. Baptista sells his daughter in an auction to the highest bidder. When suitors talk about the money to be gained we hear the “ka-ching” of a cash register.

The set and costumes, designed by Narelle Sissons and Miranda Hoffman respectively, show just how out of place Charlaynne Woodard’s Katherina is in this world. The set is dressed in red and sparkles with reflective panes and revolving doors. Above it all is a huge billboard of a woman in a one-piece red bathing suit, a pose later taken by Bianca, as it is her that is being advertised. Katherina appears on no billboards, in no sparkling dresses, but in a tomboyish getup, in simple pants and shirt.

The production’s supporting players are strong all around. Bruce Nelson is a dry and precise Jeeves of a Tranio, servant to Bianca’s suitor Lucentio. Leading up Petruchio’s servants are Louis Butelli as Grumio and Erika Rose as Curtis. The two of them have immense skills when it comes to physical comedy. And Aubrey K. Deeker is a memorable, greasy Hortensio. (Will somebody please do Cymbeline so I can see this man play Iachimo?)

Where this production falls a little short for me is with Kate and Petruchio. Both actors have a fantastic grasp of the language and are watchable, but neither performance completely convinces me. Christopher Innvar (who was deliciously rougish as Archer in last season’s Beaux’ Stratagem) is the most laid back Petruchio I have ever seen. He also doesn’t seem eccentric enough to be the master of the delightfully clownish group of servants we meet in the second half.

Charlayne Woodard’s Kate is strong and feisty, but I wasn’t always sure of where her character was coming from. Kate and Petruchio’s wooing scene, usually the best part of any production, was surprisingly a little lackluster. However, Woodard was really quite good in that final, infamous speech. There were beautiful moments of depth and ambiguity contained in that speech that I wish the rest of the production had more fully embraced.

And here we come to it. The element that has to be figured our before attempting any production of Shrew. What do you do with a play where a man declares, “she is my goods, my chattels,” etc? What do you do with a character that starts off so strong and witty and ends with “place your hands below your husband’s foot: in token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready; may it do him ease?”

The answer, in almost every production I have seen, has been that this is a joke. Kate is playing Petruchio’s game. They are in love, and together they outwit the rest of the world. For some reason I have seen more productions of Shrew than anything else in the Bard’s cannon, and this answer never works for me. Never. I find it quite shocking that the only Shrew I have ever seen to say unequivocally with its production that Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is wrong was not only directed by a man, but performed by an all male company.

No matter how good the performances are I am never able to stomach a Katherine who is playing the end of the play as a private joke between her and Petruchio. There are other moments in the play that I have trouble with. In this production, after her wedding dress is ruined, Kate spends half the play half-naked, in a slip and corset. She only is given clothing after she learns to be obedient in the sun and the moon scene. When Petruchio gives her the money at the end of the play, I don’t find it a gallant gesture, but in line with the previous gift. It seems like a “what a good job, Kate, here is a treat.”

I think I find these moments distasteful because they are, not because the production is saying, “Look, this is distasteful.” Although the man’s club mentality so strongly and rightly created in the final scene with the bet and the whooping and hooting seems like the production might be going there, Taichman still insists on trying to give us a happy ending, complete with sweeping romantic kisses between Kate and Petruchio.

As you can see, most of my quibbles with this production are a result of my own personal feelings about the play itself. Director Taichman picks her interpretation and goes for it. That and the strong performances make it, while not a perfect Shrew for me, one still worth seeing.

3 stars
Through November 18th


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