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The Taming Of The Shrew by Elyse Sommer
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua
--Petruchio, Act 1, scene 2, line 74
This is the way to kill a wife with kindness
--Petruchio, Act IV, scene 1, line 301.
The wealthy wife Petruchio settles on being the shrewish Katherine, happiness also means taming her -- in fact, subjugating her so completely that she will call the sun the moon if he so demands. His idea of killing his wife with kindness include sleep and food deprivation. To offset the humiliating journey from shrew to servant-wife, some of the many famous actresses who have played the tamed shrew in this century have winked or gestured at audiences behind Petruchio's back to show that the shrew while tamed remained undaunted.
Winks, gestures and updating notwithstanding, can a play that endorses women as property really be more funny than painful? Leave it to Roger Rees. Last year he successfully added a play within a play to spark up The Rivals. Now, using Shakespeare's he give that element of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew a double twist which amusingly frames the story and does so with a bow to feminist sensibilities.
Ignoring the risks inherent in acting in as well as directing a play, Rees has also taken the unusual step of casting himself in two roles: Petruchio, who comes to Padua "to wive it wealthily" and Sly, a drunkard tricked into believing he is a Lord watching the story of Petruchio and Katherina, the shrewish daughter of a rich man who he marries and subdues. Rees' decision to play both parts turns out to be a savvy one in terms of building a bridge between "show opener and closer" and main player. His performance is smooth and proficient, if somewhat too slick and showing occasional signs that he might just have his mind on his directorial chores.
The Sly of this production is a modern day somewhat over-aged biker type who makes a tumultuous entry via the aisle. Wielding a flash camera he drunkenly tries to take pictures of people in the audience. The ruckus he raises brings on several pretend ushers to subdue him. (The camera is the first of many present-day props that propel Shakespeare's little war of the sexes into the millenium). When Sly explodes from aisle to stage he literally brings down Neil Patel's turquoise scrim curtain painted with "The Williamstown Players Present The Taming of the Shrew) and is captured on a hospital guerney and taken away by a police escort -- making way for the real story to begin and for Sly to return to the stage as Petruchio. Bear in mind though that I said Sly was the show opener and closer. I won't tell you why and how,he returns but anyone rude enough to head for the exit before the actors have taken their final bows, will miss the bookend conclusion of the prologue.
For those unfamiliar with the plot. Katherina's father, a rich Paduan merchant, won't let her younger flirty sister Bianca, marry before her older sister. Katherina's bad temper makes men steer a wide path of her. But enter the fortune-hunting Petruchio who marries her and drags her off to his home in Verona sure he can have his fortune and a docile wife as well. While the two main players fight their battle, the secondary story of Bianca and her suitors evolves, mainly as a means for adding comic antics to the proceedings.
Bebe Neuwirth whose major credits are in musicals brings enough of tough, sexy Velma Kelly (of Chicago) to make her an interesting if imperfect leading lady. Like Rees she plays a double role, the cop in the play introducing the play within and the tough and eventually tamed Katherina. She brings considerable physical energy to her key assignment. Her best scenes (and Rees's) are the few glimpses we have of the genuine sexual pull between two basically lonely and emotionally guarded people. It is those moments that make you realize how closely these characters mirror each other's personalities, with just a tinge of the sado-masochism in their relationship showing. She is also quite touchingly conveys her frustration when Petruchio's campaign to beat her down has her slumped in a chair under a lamp eerily reminiscent of a police interrogation room. Generally though she appears less than comfortable in her part, a fact underscored by the perfect fit of the minor role.
With the emphasis of this production on high voltage maneuverings with disguises and milking the updated setting and props for maximum laughs, (i.e. the horse that's an out of gas being a motor bike steered by an Elvis look-alike Grumio (David Aaron Baker) , and a small electric stove masquerading as a fire), the supporting cast is most notable for its busyness. Allan Mandell and John Ellison Conlee are good as the beautiful Bianca's suitors. Carrie Preston knows how to deliver Shakespeare's lines but plays the sought-after sister as if this were an old Doris Day movie. The standout in the support department is Tom Bloom, who also distinguished himself in The Rivals, and here shines in two areas: as Katherina's father, Baptista Minola , and the composer of a musical score that adds greatly to the mood and spirit of the overall. Also repeating their strong contributions are the designers who worked with Rees on The Rivals. Neil Patel's set is a mix of a standard Italian town square and the St. Gennaro's festival on New York's Bleeker Street. Kay Voyce's costumes amusingly turn these Paduans into citizens of anywhere.
As always, the WTF program contains some fascinating background notes and photographs, in this case several mini-essays that put the gender conflict of The Taming of the Shrew into a larger context. For those of you who think this at times Looney Tunes romp is too over-the-top even in the light of all the liberties taken with the Bard's work, much of what's found here is grounded in precedent. For example:
The police brought in upon Roger Rees-Sly's rowdy entrance and the collapsing curtain may have been inspired by a 1978 production at Stratford in which Jonathan Pryce fought in the stalls and ripped down scenery with such vigor and conviction that several audience members actually left the theater to call the police. As for props like the motorbike on which Petruchio and Grumio and Katherina ride out of Padua, there was a 1930s production in which Petruchio returned to Padua in a motorcar equipped with three motors -- one to turn the wheels, one to make the sound of a driving engine, and one to blow the actors' clothes as though they were whirling along in a functioning open car.
A look at CurtainUp writer Chloe Veltman's review of a concurrently running Shrew revival in Central Park (go here) would indicate that the challenge of this play currently is not whether to do it, but how to best bring it up to date (though women might well wonder if there's some sort of backlash against "uppity" women afoot). It will be interesting to see the direction taken when the musicalized Shrew, better known as Kiss Me Kate returns to Broadway with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie -- Coalhouse Walker and Mother in Ragtime.
In closing, a word about two words: shrew and shrewd. The adjective shrewd as in artful or cunning derives from the Middle English term shrew to describe an ill-tempered, scolding woman. Shakespeare's Katherina fits both these terms. When she meets her match in a man whose nasty streak reflects hers (after all, she at one point ties her sister to a table), she shrewdly takes the measure of her situation and in capitulating turns the crass fortune hunter into a loving a husband. Adding interludes of ball playing to the games of disguise and sexual sparring are thus also be a case of shrewd directing. Shrewd as this production may be, however, it has neither the wit of WTF's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or the emotional resonance of Camino Real.