The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s production of The Taming of the Shrew that opened Tuesday night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is not exactly Shrew as we’re familiar with it, and it’s going to be up to the audience members if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or both.  Much has been made in the lead-up to this production of the all-male nature of the cast, but that’s hardly the most daring move made on stage.  Indeed, there’s quite a lot of the night that happens off the stage and into the public spaces of STC’s Sidney Harman Hall; Iskandar is a director known for immersive theatre and has worked very hard to pull the Harman in line with his aesthetic.  On opening night, actors in full costume mingled with patrons and danced outside the theatre. Likewise, much has been made of the Piazza D’Amore market and the Padua Finishing School that take over the lobbies as well, but I’m not clear how these elements really function, as the crowd made the lobby difficult to navigate, much less investigate. It’s not necessarily my favorite thing for theatres to try and do, but I could see plenty of patrons who were delighted by the proceedings.

Efforts to open up the stage of the Harman within the theatre itself (sans proscenium) functioned much more smoothly and seamlessly—Seth Reiser’s lighting design was sumptuous and consistently beautiful throughout the night, while Jason Sherwood’s magnificent gilded set was a wonderful and adaptive frame for the characters.  Many productions find opportunities to let the actors wander amidst the audience, but few actually go as far as Iskandar and allow the audience to enter the actors’ space by coming on stage during the extended intermission, where actors perform both music and extended makeouts.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

But what of the play itself? That’s where Iskandar makes his boldest choices and where he ventures into the murky territory of adaptation.  It seems as though, while in the early stages of preparing to direct this production, Iskandar created what amounts to a fanmix of Duncan Sheik songs for Shrew and proceeded to weave those songs throughout his production, letting them inform and build upon certain ideas he had for characters.  The result is somewhat jarring—when characters leave Shakespeare’s dialogue and transition into modern pop idioms, the heightening effect of music isn’t quite enough to compensate for the lessened textual complexity.  It’s through these songs, however, that Iskandar adds another layer to the story of Bianca, Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello. Instead of the (relatively) straightforward story of Lucentio’s courtship of Bianca, Iskandar has decided to complicate matters by having Tranio pining for Lucentio while Bianca sighing over an equally lovelorn Biondello.  It’s an interesting idea, but I found myself much more taken with elements of Oliver Thornton’s Bianca that took place within Shakespeare’s text, rather than outside it. This Bianca clearly adores performing femininity and likewise enjoys how very good at it she is, and how this brings her a certain cachet within her society.  Thornton is exceptionally good at showing that however much Bianca loves the thrill of being beautiful, she doesn’t love the objectification and commodification that her beauty forces upon her.  She marries Lucentio as the best option available to her, not because it’s what she would choose for herself; like her sister, however, she doesn’t have a lot of agency within this world.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar.
Photo by Scott Suchman.

This is not my first all-male Shrew; that distinction belongs to the 2007 production by Ed Hall’s Propeller theatre company. At the time, I noted that by having the actor Simon Scardifield playing Katherine, the audience saw a Kate that could give as good as she got, before Hall took the production to a very dark place (a place, admittedly, that provided the most tonally consistent and earned reading of Kate’s final speech I’ve ever encountered).  When you removed actual female bodies from that particular Shrew, Hall’s production could heighten the violence beyond what an audience might be able to bear to watch inflicted upon female characters. It seems like a logical conclusion and a reasonable justification for an all-male Shrew, but it’s not the course that Iskandar has chosen for his Shrew.

Instead, this Shrew actually makes the best case I’ve yet seen that these crazy kids Katherine and Petruchio might actually have a ghost of a chance. Instead of staging amusing fisticuffs during the characters’ first meeting, Maulik Pancholy’s reserved and hardened Kate seems inclined to give Peter Gadiot’s Petruchio a chance—if he can earn it.  Pancholy’s Kate wants so desperately to be seen as more than her reputation, and it’s incredibly affecting to watch her torn between the slightest hope that this might be something new, and angry resignation that Petruchio only offers more of the same old scorn.  At several points in the production, we can see hints of their partnership emerging—Kate can take the piss out of someone if she does it with Petruchio as part of a team of equals.  The problem is, of course, that even (especially?) with an all-male cast, it’s just not good enough that Petruchio claims that he can act shrewish himself to teach Kate a lesson, because PATRIARCHY.  Even if Iskandar allows Kate to beat Petruchio while he refrains from hitting back, the fact that this scene comes amidst days of abuse where she has been denied sleep, food, or water means that Petruchio is still an abuser who has all the power in this society and this relationship, not a romantic lead on a noble quest.  It’s the real problem of the play, and Iskandar hasn’t found a way around it, despite making an effort.

I do have to peevishly note my least favorite Iskandar change in the entire play. Andre De Shields plays the role of Gremio in the first half, and plays him admirably—this is no knock against his performance. Unfortunately, Signior Gremio has been transformed inexplicably into Monseigneur Gremio, making one of Bianca’s suitors a member of the Catholic clergy, for whom marriage is clearly off the table. It’s the kind of change that’s not only unnecessary, but simply doesn’t make sense when the text as performed clearly has the character angling for marriage, not sex.  The fact that the program calls him a Cardinal is just embarrassing, as that’s an entirely different title within the church to Monseigneur, but that’s only icing on the cake of a poor choice.

There are many, many good ideas in this Shrew, and STC is absolutely to be commended for bringing a director like Iskandar into their fold and taking the risk that this production entailed.  I always rather see a production overreach than play it safe and boring, and Iskandar certainly didn’t produce a snoozer.  There are so many smart choices made on the stage, from design elements that created a fantastical Italianate eleganza in the Harman, to very smart scenework from the talented ensemble.  Maulik Pancholy’s Kate and Oliver Thornton’s Bianca are creations that will stay in my imagination for a long time and resonate across all future productions that I see, which is exactly why I seek out new productions of familiar plays again and again.  I would love to see this production trimmed of the Sheik, so that I could really see what Iskander did with Shakespeare’s text, but I rather fancy that that’s not a production he’d be as interested in creating.  I’d also be interested in seeing a production even more unfettered to tradition, freewheeling its way through the parts of the text that most interested Iskandar, excising anything that didn’t, and adding all the trappings he’d like.  There’s something about this production that’s more similar to the quasi-Shakespeare that dominated stages of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, where creators new endings that they preferred and added all the songs and dances their hearts (and audiences) wanted.  It’s not that Iskandar’s production goes against tradition—rather, it wholeheartedly embraces traditions that audiences are just a little less familiar with.  Even if this production was ultimately a mixed bag for me, I absolutely applaud its spirit of invention and the daring that brought it onto the Harman stage.


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