The Tamer Tamed
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
September 17, 2008
If you think the blockbuster sequel began with the Rocky movies, you might want to take a look at The Tamer Tamed, John Fletcher's little-known sequel to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Fletcher, who is probably best known today as Shakespeare's collaborator on Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen, was a very popular playwright in his own right, and his sequel apparently rivaled the Bard's original in popularity when they were performed together during the 17th century. Were the English audiences of the 17th century right? Well, now you can judge for yourself, as both are being produced in repertory by The Misfit Toys Repertory Company.
For those who might not know, The Taming of the Shrew leaves off with the marriage of the headstrong Katherine to the rakish Petruchio after a tumultuous courtship which ends with the seemingly untamable Katherine submitting meekly to her new husband in a surprising - and to many problematic—about face. In The Tamer Tamed Petruchio gets his comeuppance, and "Shrew 2: The Reckoning" teases at being the perfect dessert to make the ending of "Shrew 1" go down a little easier.
But if you're eagerly anticipating Katherine's revenge, The Tamer Tamed is likely to disappoint you in that regard. Instead, The Tamer Tamed opens 12 years later, with Katherine long dead and the mantle of rebellion being passed to Petruchio's new bride, Maria. Egged on by Katherine's little sister Bianca—whose husband, Lucentio, has now apparently vanished from the scene—Maria decides to tame Petruchio by refusing to have sex with him on their wedding night, and—taking a page from Aristophanes's Lysistrata—barricades herself off with other discontented wives until Petruchio comes around. Petruchio attempts various stratagems to get Maria to submit, some of which parallel elements of the original play, but in the end, it is Maria who does the taming.
It's a cliché that sequels rarely live up to the originals, and The Tamer Tamed proves no exception to this rule. Fletcher's script just seems a little too contrived for my taste—it's never adequately explained why Maria decides suddenly to challenge Petruchio after their marriage, and Maria and Petruchio never seem quite like the couple that Petruchio and Katherine make. What makes Taming of the Shrew such a fun ride when it's performed well is the clashing and attraction of two dynamic and powerful wills, but in The Tamer Tamed it feels as though Maria has the upper hand from the very beginning. Petruchio here seems like a blustering fool from the get-go, a man who is no match for Maria and would be no match for Katherine either, which makes Maria's conquest all the more unimpressive, and frankly, not as much fun to watch. Certainly the Lysistrata-like storyline doesn't help matters here—that it is Maria's withholding sex that is her main stratagem doesn't make either of them more interesting. I won't go into how it all plays out, but for me, the ultimate resolution is even less satisfying than in the original.
Fletcher's script provides problems that are tricky to solve, but I think some bolder and clearer directorial choices in this particular production might have served to tackle some of them better. Stylistically, the show seems tentative, with seemingly random sprinklings of modern elements in an otherwise ambiguous period setting. More importantly, I found myself often unclear what was emotionally propelling many of the characters to make the choices they made. Petruchio and Maria certainly don't seem to like each other very much on any level; and there is no indication of a suppressed passion that would indicate why they got together in the first place, why they wind up together in the end, or why we should care along the way. The repulsion is there, but without the attraction there isn't much of a dynamic, and this production isn't quite successful in creating the atmosphere that will create the oxygen to feed this fire. And though they bring poise and presence to the stage, neither Jared Houseman as Petruchio nor Amy Hutchins as Maria bring the larger-than-life personas or the chemistry together whose clash could actually create sparks.
For me, the Livia and Rowland subplot of star crossed-lovers—which replaces Bianca and Lucentio in the original Shrew—fares better. Anna Marie Sell is delightful as the earnest Livia and Michael Swartz's Rowland is great fun as a sort of affable bimbo, and they are helped by Marla Yost as Bianca and John Papais as Tranio, who bring solid performances to their roles in manipulating the young lovers into each others' rightful arms. But what makes this story really work is that Livia and Rowland seem completely crazy about each other. The Livia/Rowland storyline isn't any less silly than the Petruchio/Maria storyline, but Sell and Swartz's puppy-eyed commitment—which they carry right through director Nikolas Priest's extravagantly staged curtain call—manages to make it all work.
In the end, I'm not sure The Tamer Tamed as written really works for me, but I would have liked to see this version of it be both more tamed and a little less tame. That is, I would have liked to see this production really sink its spurs into this beast and take it somewhere, but also bring about more zest and boldness to the proceedings.