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A CurtainUp Review
The Taming of the Shrew
By Elyse Sommer
Like Oscar Eustis, the Public's savvy Artistic Director, I've always had a problem with the "taming" aspects of this play. So have many others. Consequently, it has invited many directorial changes and acting interpretations to make Shakespeare's mysogonist world, especially the spousal abuse of Katherina by Petruchio, more palatable.
The late Roger Rees's 1999 Williamstown Theater production came closest towards overcoming my so-so view of the play with a clever framing device that was also a bow to feminist sensibilities (review ). Now comes Phyllida Lloyd's enjoyable, shwredly cast take on the play that's been as controversial for feminists as The Merchant of Venice has been for Jews.
Ms. Lloyd has demonstrated her knack for staging Shakespeare with all female casts with Julius Caesar and Henry IV ). While she actually did the all-female Taming. . ., once before in London (review ) and with the always superb Janet McTeer as Petruchio, she's retooled it for the outdoor Delacorte Theater. The result is a hilarious and thoroughly of the moment romp. It may not be Shakespeare at his most subtle or have the consistency of style of LLoyds other Shakespeare plays, but it's definitely great fun. And of course, it's a big plus to have the superb Janet McTeer along to play Petruchio along with a cast that clearly enjoys this chance to rid the Shrew of that mysogonist curse.
The play within a play framework Lloyd used for Julius Caesar and Henry IV may well have been inspired by Taming. . . which always had a framing device, via the Bard's prologue. But unlike her previous girls-as-guys plays Lloyd wisely abandoned the prison set-up for a production to be watched under a moonlit summer sky. Sly's prologue or "induction" which is often eliminated is very much part of the fun. However, it's been completely rewritten. The audience is now taken to a Beauty Pageant with Katherine and Bianca and other contestants dancing up a storm to lively musical accompaniment.
That absurd but wildly entertaining prologue is just the beginning of the hi jinx to come. Ms. Lloyd, her actors and staging team have mined every possibility for boisterously bold comedy, taking full advantage of the outdoor setting, and using the gender busting casting to satirize Elizabethan macho.
For a casting coup that once again proves Shakespeare's continuing adaptability to the current zeitgeist, there's stand-up comic Judy Gold as a lively and mischievous fourth wall breaking Grumio. Who needs intermissions with Gold's Gromio interrupting the story to riff about the play as an all female enterprise and comment about our current presidential campaign.
The scenario, in case you don't know or have forgotten the detils:: Katherina's father, a rich Paduan merchant, won't let his younger, much sought after daughter Bianca, marry before her older sister whose mad temper makes men steer a wide path of her — except for the fortune-hunting Petruchio who's come to Padua "to wive and thrive." He therefore ignores his friends' warnings and marries Katherina, confident that he will not only end up with a generous dowry but an obedient, loving wife. This central plot unfolds against the secondary story of Bianca and her suitors.
Janet McTeer is very much the star of tis enterprise. She has the physical mannerisms and voice for an authentically male Petruchio — as bad-mannered as Katherina is bad-tempered (at one point we see him urinating against a tree). Cush Jumbo, who made her mark on TV as Lucca Quinn in The Good wife, and on stage in Josephine and I and The River is a delightful Katherina even if not quite as nuanced as McTeer. The strong chemistry between her and McTeer adds a nice sexual undercurrent. Boorish and barbaric as this Petruchio is, mcTeer and Jumbo somehow make you glad that they will end up together. Of course, the real clincher here comes with Katherina's famous (or rather infamous) advice to "women wanting to be happily "wived." But, like everything else about this production, it shouldn't be taken too seriously.
There is fine support from Gayle Rankin as the spoiled, flirty Bianca. She has a particularly priceless exchange with Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore) that looks and feels like a detour to a variation of Gone With the Wind's "As God is my witness" scene. There are other liberties taken with the text that include having the Kate-Petruchio relationship skip several stages of their power struggle.
I've already mentioned Judy Gold's amusing detours from the play within to tap into her stand-up comic persona. Donna Lynne Champlin, Adrienne Moore and Candy Buckley are all persuasive as Hortensio, Tranio Vincentio though Champlin is standout, especially so when doing a purposely klunky tap dance during the beauty pageant prologue. I can't resist a special pat on the furry back of the unnamed actor playing Petruchio's shaggy dog who is treated better than poor starved Katherina.
The rustic surroundings and the designers' inventiveness more than compensate for the lack of technical wizardry found at a conventional Broadway venue. Mark Thompson has smartly used two trailers as bedrooms in Katherina and Bianca's Padua home, with a large mobile unit actually driving on stage to set the scene for Petruchio's big "taming" shenanigans.
The costumes (also by Thompson) and hairdos (Leah J. Loukas) wittily contribute to making the male characters genuinely guy-ish as called for. Robert Wierzel's lighting is given a strong assist by Mother Nature. A beautiful quarter moon on the night I attended, handily showed up Petruchio's bullying insistence that Katherina agree with him no matter who wrong he might be. Thus his insistence that it's sunlight in the face of that very real and brigt moon gives a subversive edge to her acquiescence.
Ultimately the high comedy and woodsy setting account for much of this production's pleasures. If you want a less campy Shakespeare evening, come back next month for Troilus and Cressida, one of the Bard's bloodiest and more serious plays.
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The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd,
Cast: Janet McTeer (Petruchio), Cush Jumbo (Katherina), Donna Lynne Champlin (Hortensio), Candy Bckley (Vincentio);osa Gilmore (Lucentio), Judy Gold (Gremio), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Baptista), Teresa Avia Lim (Biondello), Adrienne C. Moore (Tranio), Anne L. Nathan (Pedant), Gayle Rankin (Bianca), Pearl Rhein (Ensemble), Leenya Rideout (Ensemble), Jackie Sanders (Ensemble) and Stacey Sargeant (Grumio).
Sets and Costumes: Mark Thompson
Hair & Wigs: Leah J. Loukas
Music composition: Sam Davis
Fight Director: Lisa Kopitsky
Movement direction: Ann Yee
Stage Manager: Cole Bonenberger
Running Ime: 2 hours without an intermission
Shakespeare in the Park Delacorte Theater
From 5/24/16; opening 6/13/16; closing 6/26/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/10 press performance
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