The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
April 1, 2012
Arin Arbus returns to Theater for Arin Arbus returns to Theater for a New Audience to give us a thoroughly delightful production of The Taming of the Shrew, one that yet again proves how this rising director is a tremendously impressive American interpreter of Shakespeare’s work. Interpretation is key with a play like Shrew, which, by today’s standards, reads more than a little misogynistic as Petruchio weds, courts, and subsequently tames Katharina until she’s an obedient and submissive bride. While Arbus hasn’t removed the considerable anti-women sentiment in the text, she has, with the help of a game cast led by Maggie Siff and Andy Groteluschen, figured out how to alter the meaning.
Admittedly, I often forget that The Taming of the Shrew is actually set within a framing device, a troupe of traveling players presenting the comedy for a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly, who, in a stupor, has been tricked into thinking he’s a nobleman. Though the playwright even seems to forget about this Induction (as he calls it) by the very end, Arbus uses it to introduce the setting, the American Midwest, circa the late 1800s. Donyale Werle’s wooden plank thrust set, combined with Marcus Doshi’s lighting, resembles both a cowboy saloon from a John Wayne movie and, to some degree, Shakespeare’s Globe itself.
More often than not, Petruchio is portrayed as a chauvinistic lothario, and it’s almost expected that he’ll be a matinee idol in the style of Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Alfred Drake (in the musical adaptation Kiss Me, Kate), among others. If you’ve seen Grotelushcen in the past (most recently as Cloten in Fiasco Theatre’s Cymbeline), you know that he will subvert these expectations. Tall, scruffy, and a bit rotund, his Petruchio is, in Anita Yavich’s lovely, character-specific costumes, a foppish, witty gasbag who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and who sees in Katharina someone who can match him note-for-note.
And that she does. Groteluschen’s hilarious and spleen-filled Petruchio is equally matched by Siff’s head-strong and calculating, alternately scary and terribly lonely Katharina. Her final monologue, in which she proclaims that she’s "ashamed that women are so simple," is mesmerizingly performed not as an indictment, but with a wise, ironic delivery that says “This is how the world works, so shut up and deal with it in order to become equals.” And that, by the end, she and Petruchio are.
They are ably backed by a first-rate ensemble, including the fetching Kathryn Saffell as Bianca, who cannot wed until her sister Katharina does, the perennially Brooklyn-accented John Pankow as Petruchio’s servant Grumio, the surprisingly touching John Christopher Jones as Bianca’s suitor Gremio and the rakish Saxon Palmer as another suitor, Hortensio. Period American tunes, some Mendelssohn, and a smattering of original tunes by composer/arranger Michael Friedman add to the Wild West flavor, as do Doug Elkins’ choreography and B.H. Barry’s movement.
At just about two-and-half-hours (with cuts), Arbus’ well-paced production barrels out of the station from the very beginning and never lets up. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next.