The Taming of the Shrew
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
January 20, 2007
The principal pleasure of the Roundtable Ensemble's current production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is the cast's ability to convince us that the whole play is being improvised. No easy task; it's often difficult for actors to make Shakespeare's words feel entirely motivated, let alone seemingly spontaneous. But director Andrew Grosso's concept that the whole thing is being played out backstage at a USO show as a sort of competition between military officers and entertainers gives the actors a good excuse to madly switch off characters, and seemingly riff off each other's cues. Even if I didn't always quite follow what the significance was of placing the play in this particular place and period, it's a great showcase for this acting talent.
The basic story is well-known: As a joke, a group of men convince the drunken Christopher Sly that he actually is a nobleman and perform a play for him. The play involves a Signor Baptista's two daughters: ill-tempered Katherina and beautiful Bianca. Lucentio wants to marry Bianca, as do two other suitors, but Baptista won't marry Bianca off until Katherina is married first. Petruchio, seeking a wife who will make him rich, arrives and agrees to woo Kate. She puts up quite a fight, demeaning him with volley after volley of invective, but Petruchio still announces they will be married. Her insults are returned when he shows up late to the wedding and then proceeds to deprive her of food, claiming that it isn't good enough for her. Bianca and Lucentio are married after a series of incidents involving disguises and mistaken identity, and Hortensio marries a widow (in this production Christopher Sly is inspired to jump into the on-stage action to portray the widow), and all are surprised that it is Bianca, not Kate, that is uncooperative at the group wedding banquet.
The production moves quickly and is performed in one 90-minute act. Certainly some will appreciate the brevity. The size of the cast is economical, too: each of the actors (aside from Kate, Petruchio, and Sly) plays multiple roles and often they are frantically switching between characters. For the most part the cast does a very good job of keeping it clear who is who, even when performing several roles within one scene! They excel at putting on various accents and genders, not to mention costume pieces, and it's all done to great comic effect.
Each of the players is worth mentioning. Tom Butler's Petruchio is a swaggering soldier at the beginning, but layers of depth are revealed as he pursues and "tames" Kate. Paul Whitthorne is a prissy, sour Kate, which is appropriate, but he makes his journey to her final submission a believable one and becomes a much warmer presence. Autumn Dornfeld is terrific in several roles including Bianca and Gremio. Jonathan Kells Phillips has come up with some very funny characterizations, including a Pedant who seems to owe something to Jim Backus of Gilligan's Island. B. Brian Argotsinger puts his nebbishy persona to good use throughout and Alex Smith proves to be the most chameleonic, taking on no less than 9 roles, sometimes switching characters from line to line.
Ironically, however, it is the actor with the least stage time who makes the most lasting impression. Arthur Aulisi is genuinely touching as the drunkard Sly, who watches the whole play from the first row of the audience and is so moved and enchanted by the spell of the storytelling that he joins the actors on stage to play the widow in the final scene. For the conclusion of the play, Aulisi plays Sly as more childlike than drunk, and Grosso adds in Rosalind's epilogue from As You Like It for Sly to deliver following his "performance" as the widow. Again, Aulisi is gentle and touching in this humorous "apology" for the bad behavior of both men and women in Shrew:
I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you: and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women—as I perceive by your simpering, none of you hates them—that between you and the women the play may please.
The staging includes a good deal of expertly-executed slapstick (Teddy Cañez is credited as fight coordinator). The set mostly consists of the Chernuchin Theatre's permanent catwalk which is smartly used, and there are some appropriate period props on the stage. Becky Lasky's costumes communicate character clearly, and she has dug up some very funny, very over-the-top costume pieces, for the actors to relish and play with.
Ultimately, though, the measure of success for an "updating" of Shakespeare is what new facets of the play are revealed in the new setting. In that respect, I'm not sure that this production is a complete winner. Grosso sets the play backstage at a World War II USO show, with Petruchio and Sly as American soldiers and the others being entertainers. I guess everything lines up and makes sense, but I didn't leave with a real sense of "why" the 1940s setting was chosen, though I did wonder if I was supposed to find meaning in that decision. Maybe you will take something more away from this than I did. Of course, Shakespeare is timeless and his art remains truthful no matter what the setting, so in any case it's worth seeing this play, and especially since the actors bring such a fresh sense of spontaneity to it.