The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
November 5, 2005
The rollicking new production of The Taming of the Shrew by the all-female Queen’s Company is an endearing outing. Without straying far from Elizabethan theatre practices, in which a bare stage and a few props must pass for the streets of Padua, a suburban stable, and several other locations, director Rebecca Patterson updates the sensibility of this early Shakespeare comedy to subvert its misogynistic message and emerge with a hymn to the pleasures of sex play and the sensual imagination.
The Taming of the Shrew may have the clearest plot of the early comedies, and that’s saying a lot. Baptista, a respected resident of Padua, is possessed of two marriage-age daughters: Bianca, a delicate young thing whose self-effacing sweetness attracts suitors like flies to honey, and her older sister Kate, a hot-tempered, willful firebrand, whose hostility and hard-headedness repels them like poison. Baptista won’t marry Bianca off, however, until a husband is found for Kate; the suitors convince Petruchio of Verona, who loves a romantic challenge, to woo and marry the stubborn sister. They are married, much against Kate’s will, which Petruchio then seeks to break in a series of lessons at his own property outside of town, where he tries to reduce her to the level of his ill-treated servants, chief among whom is the hapless Grumio.
The play’s conceptual and physical imaginative space in the Queen’s Company production is earthy through and through. Jeremy Woodward’s set design is a palette of warm earth tones, deep reds and browns evocative of a Mediterranean Italy, illuminated with spacious floods of bright sun provided by lighting designer Aaron Copp. With the exception of a few directorial flourishes (again, Shakespeare’s frame-story featuring a deluded Christopher Sly is cut here, replaced with a musical prologue lip-synched to a Cyndi Lauper song), Patterson doesn’t stray far from a traditional rendering: Sarah Iams’ period costumes set the play quite firmly in its 17th-century Paduan environment.
And then, of course, there’s that feature of the production that makes it unique. This appears to be the month of the single-sexed Shakespeare, the all-male Winter’s Tale from Britain’s Propeller theatre company just having closed at the Next Wave Festival. Here, the Queen’s Company flips Propeller the aesthetic bird by provocatively casting the Shakespeare tale exclusively with women—evocatively so, in this case. These single-sex productions of Shakespeare deepen our understanding of the characters in rendering them individuals rather than representatives of a gender, a daring decision in the case of Taming of the Shrew, which is all about traditional sex and gender roles. It speaks well to Patterson’s insight that, in this concept, Petruchio, Kate, and the other characters no longer take part in a battle of the sexes, but explore the ability of role-playing to fuel rather than stifle the sensuality of a sexual relationship.
Speaking of that all-female cast, it’s a delight, gratifyingly at home with Elizabethan tone and diction—not surprisingly, given the troupe’s experience in the past with Marlowe, Sheridan, and Webster. Of the eight human members of the company, Carey Urban’s petulant Kate (quite the ventriloquist, as it turns out), Samarra’s self-assured Petruchio (who gets a form of happy sexual comeuppance at the close of this production), and especially Natalie Lebert’s eternally put-upon Grumio are stand-outs, though Karen Berthel, Amy Driesler, Terri Power, Beverley Prentice, and Gisele Richardson all have their well-deserved time at center stage as well. So far as the performance of the one non-human member of the company, let’s just say that Little Sweetie Doll, in the role of Bianca, presents the best performance by a sex toy I’ve seen this season.
There are missteps; this is not a perfect Taming of the Shrew. “Kate’s Dream,” a musical sequence featuring Tina Turner’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” serves its purpose of providing Kate with an epiphany, but doesn’t entirely overcome a sense of anachronism; and just from a personal point of view I wouldn’t mind a moratorium on the use of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a feminist anthem—not that I have a problem with the sentiment, I just think it’s an annoying, terrible song. (I know, I know, it’s a blind spot. So sue me.) But these are minor blemishes on an otherwise well-conceived production.
Shakespeare’s early comedies are all too often period pieces, lacking the broad humanistic strokes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the plays that came after, and you have to do a lot of pushing to get plays like The Comedy of Errors and Two Gentleman of Verona into the 21st century. The Taming of the Shrew has always been a controversial play as well, especially following the women's rights movements of the 1960s and onward. It says something wonderful about the Queen’s Company that they’ve been able to avoid ideological grandstanding and agitprop by recasting The Taming of the Shrew as a call to imaginative sexual freedom for everyone, regardless of sex or gender (whatever that might be)—that the shifting balance of power between two individuals, whether male or female by biological determination, can open up an erotic world, not shut it down. It’s not what Shakespeare intended, perhaps, but it’s what the Queen’s Company takes from him now, and it’s what they give to us. Let’s be grateful.