For the most part, cutting the chaff benefits the play which Sean Graney wisely directs at a breakneck pace. By doing so, there is less time to ponder why the proud and occasionally vicious Katharina (aka “Kate”) falls for her tormenter, er, husband, Petruchio (Paul Hurley). Graney has also made a good choice in having Annie Worden play Kate as not just really bitchy but nearly insane, which automatically shifts some sympathy toward her avaricious groom.
As the battling duo,Worden and Hurley are a handsome couple, well-matched in some ways. But the specter of misogyny still hangs over this play, no matter how many have said, “Well, Shakespeare was being ironic” or “that was the way people thought back then,” or whatever. The bare fact is that Petruchio gets into this marriage for the money, treats his bride like a dog, “tames her,” and then they fall in love. I find it particularly ironic that the Festival is sponsoring shows for schools around town using Shakespeare to descry bullying, when Petruchio is a poster boy for cruelty, though he justifies it as being kindness in disguise. When he addresses the audience at one point, he asks plaintively that if anyone has a better way to tame a shrew, then they should stand up and tell him. That was a tough moment to let go by, but everyone did.
Graney has other tricks up his sleeve to distract us from Petruchio’s antics. The director makes sure that all the other characters are even more ridiculous than they might be in a more traditional production, if that’s possible. In Shakespeare’s original script, “Shrew” is a full five-act play within a play performed for a drunk called Christopher Sly (Kurt Ehrmann) a bunch of nobles have found in a tavern. When he passes out, they think (for some reason) that it would be hilarious to make him think he’s a lord when he wakes. So, they dress him up, put him in bed with a woman they say is his wife, and pretend to be his “servants.” When a group of traveling players shows up, Sly gets a private performance.
This “induction” is significantly abbreviated here. The time now is the 1950s, and he wanders onto Baptista Minola’s property (still in Padua, at least). The “nobles” are transmogrified into four suburban golfing buddies who find him when they enter the scene in a 1958 Cadillac and park in Minola’s carport. They give Sly a floatie and a drink and escort him into the aluminum swimming pool to watch the proceedings. At intermission, he says he’s enjoying the play so much he’d like to play a part, so in Act II, the framing device disappears.
When Baptista (Steve Isom) appears, he is wearing a track suit, a fright wig, and from his accent, he has come to Padua by way of Jersey. Other characters use various speech styles, I assume, to universalize the piece and help distinguish among social classes. The most well-spoken of the bunch is Katharina. Her sweet but vapid younger sister, Bianca (Megan M. Storti) quickly becomes a figure of fun as she weeps over the teddy bear her mean sister has destroyed in one of her furies.
Bianca simpers about, gathering suitors ranging including the neighboring dirty old man Gremio (Gary Glasgow) toting a portable oxygen tank and tottering around the set doing what would seem to be a Don Knotts imitation. I think. Hortensio (Michael James Reed) is another Bianca-whipped guy, and he disguises himself as “Licio,” who tutors the girl in music (rockabilly guitar and “singing”) to get time with her. Before he goes undercover though, his old friend Petruchio shows up and Hortensio fills him in on the fact that Baptista won’t let Bianca marry until the older Katharina does. The catch is no one will have the “shrew.” Another who falls under Bianca’s inexplicable spell is a new guy in town from Mantua, Lucentio (Will Shaw) who also disguises himself as a tutor, academic this time, which Bianca can certainly use, but he’s as dumb as she is. He also has had his servant Tranio (David Graham Jones) switch places with him and pretend to be “Lucentio” to plead his case with Baptista. (NOTE: Christopher Sly is drunk and he doesn’t seem to have trouble following these confusing machinations.)
Petruchio, acting on what he heard from Hortensio, gets an offer he can’t refuse from Baptista when the former asks about Katharina’s hand, and they marry in haste. Petruchio shows up late to the wedding in swim trunks, a cape and stag’s horns, and his fey servant Grumio (an excellent Karl Gregory) is similarly garbed, at least in the way of headgear. Much protesting ensues, but the union happens anyway and Petruchio rushes off with his bride to starve her, withhold water from her, and not allow her to sleep for days until she breaks. This isn’t love; it’s Stockholm Syndrome.
The couple return to Baptista’s house the day Bianca has learned that her tutor (Cambio) is actually her suitor (Lucentio) and they elope. Meanwhile, Hortensio, who has seen the writing on the wall, drops his pursuit and marries a wealthy widow (Laura Sexauer) and the entire group ends up at the reception where the men make a wager to find out who has the most obedient wife. And . . . . well, you know, and it’s “kiss me, Kate,” and let’s get home to the airstream parked over to the side of the set where Petruchio lives.
The end of the play, which is usually its most awkward part, here becomes its salvation. When Katharina and Petruchio emerge, they are both dressed in suits; his red with white trim and hers the reverse. She wears the outfit like a second skin and has slipped into her red high heels again, the shoes she had on when she was still a “shrew.” Is this a hint of something? When she is summoned later, she struts the stage like Amanda Bonner (another Kate, Hepburn, that is, in the movie Adam’s Rib) does in court, making her case for the abused wife in the film but still putting her husband and marriage first. Worden even uses Hepburn mannerisms and speech cadences to allow us to see the strength still left in the wounded lioness, and she is positively Portian in her summation of a wife’s duty to her husband.
Another pop culture character lurking about here is Sandy from Grease, which makes the 1950s a logical choice for an updated time period. When Danny dumps her, she makes herself over to suit Danny’s image of a hot girl, and she wins him back. She even has him groveling at her feet. Until I saw this play done this way, I’d never seen the through line between these two characters, but it is there. Sandy is not a shrew, but she is a virginal, “nice girl,” not what a high school boy wants in public. In private, he likes her as she really is, but she’s willing to put on an act for him and his friends because she loves him. And that, in the end, is what tames the shrew. We don’t know why, but she does love the guy, after all.
The whole cast is good to excellent, but if there were an M.V.P. Award, it should go to Kurt Ehrmann. His “Foster Brooks” performance of the drunken tinker Sly is a lot of fun, but when he joins the cast as both Pedant and Vincentio, he shines. I’m not sure he steals the scenes he’s in, especially one that he plays with himself, because it seems like the rest of the actors simply back away and hand it over to him.
The versatile ensemble also is worthy of mention by name: Justin Leibrecht, Laura Sexauer, and Peter Winfrey. The three provide a chorus of singers (“Goin’ to the Chapel,” etc.), caterers and party guests, friends of Petruchio who aid his schemes, and many more. The trio adds much to the proceedings, as do several live musicians.
The set is a remarkable recreation of a 1950s-style modern ranch house and its surroundings rendered in vivid primary colors. Scott C. Neale gets the credit. Alison Siple and her costume crew have recreated the look of the period, and all is enhanced by John Wylie’s lights and Robin Weatherall’s sound, including some original compositions. The actor’s microphones were a bit iffy, but that’s no surprise, considering the weather conditions. It really does take a village to put on one of these productions and, visually and aurally, they have done wonderful work.
The Taming of the Shrew is still not a play I can fully appreciate, but this particular rendition of the tale at least helped me lighten up and enjoy it. If you go, it plays every night at 8 p.m. except Tuesdays.