The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by Mary Beth Smith
June 23, 2011
The American Shakespeare Factory is presenting William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew at The Red Room. Upon entering the space audience members are greeted immediately with a barrage of sound and images evoking the feel of small town trailer trash. Director Frank Cwiklik establishes a sense of place by using both multimedia images, such as footage from a Dallas Cowboys game and a Nascar race, as well as piping in purposely bad bluegrass music. While I appreciated these choices, what really caught my eye from the beginning was the lack of chairs for audience members. Cwiklik clearly wants to give the entire room a “living room” feel, as if the audience is watching everything unfold in front of them on their television, like bad reality TV. Therefore all of the seats from the space have been removed and we are seated on the floor on pillows. Having seen countless shows in this space, this was a welcomed and fun way to begin one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies.
As the show began, however, I was put off by the chosen dialect. While keeping with the setting and feel of the over all show, I felt most often that the use of an extremely heavy Southern dialect marred the language and stole the story from the actors. I was too busy concentrating on what they were saying due to the dialect and thus not able to engage with the story. The actors do a great job presenting a thick “backwoods” accent but it takes too much away from the language of the play. By setting the play in a less educated and highly conservative area, however, the theme of human ownership becomes immediately present. When Baptista presents his daughter Kate to Petruchio and forces her to marry him I realized that this woman was truly viewed as a piece of property by these two men. Having seen many productions of Shrew, it is rare that this element of the story is as acutely conspicuous as it is in Cwiklik’s modern-day production.
Within this production there are some excellent performances, most notably Lindsey Carter’s portrayal of Bianca. She shows us a rich, beautiful, boy-crazy girl who is difficult not to love. The scenes featuring Bianca and her suitors combine just the right amount of giddiness, secrecy, and charm, making it easy to understand how these men fall in love with her. Carter’s naïveté and allure is in stark contrast to Briana Tyson’s Katharina, who is aggressive and irate consistently until the end. Tyson does a decent job at making this character entirely unlovable, sometimes at the expense of her own status, but allows the audience into her world as she begins to play the game rather than resist it.
The weak links in this production are the men. While the women deliver nuanced performances, I found that most of the men simply played characters that are stereotypes, without truly giving the audience anything new or different. Troy Alan (Vincentio) and Josh Potter (Grumio), however, truly establish characters who both fight against and live inside of this trailer-trash world. While Alan does not appear until late in the play, his presence on stage is like a breath of fresh air. Imbued with status and authority Alan portrays Lucentio’s father in a way that balances humor with wealth and fatherly expectations. Conversely, Potter highlights his servant character of Grumio with a rough and crass sense of humor that we have come to expect out of lower class Shakespeare characters in such a way that you realize he plays Petruchio’s game as much as Katharina.
Just like Katharina this production of The Taming of the Shrew is often irreverent and crass. While the audience has a good time watching the train wreck of characters unfold, the production fails to fully capture the hearts of audience members. The key to a successful production of this play is for the director to be clear about the problematic ending. Is Katharina really tamed? Is she still playing the game? Or is her final monologue laced with sarcasm and anger? I did get the sense that Katharina had fallen for Petruchio, however I was uncertain at which point and why her feelings had changed and I wonder if Cwiklik had truly answered these questions for himself. American Shakespeare Factory’s The Taming of the Shrew is a romp through the world of trailer-park living full of Budweiser and bluegrass, with a little love and a lot of fun.