City Theatre, through Aug. 17
Running time: 2 hr, 10 min
It's a busy night at Baptista's Burgers, where the chain-smoking proprietor's daughters, Bianca and Kate, wander into the audience to take orders from the crowd.
"Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!" Kate cries after taking an order, and upon delivery of the minuscule White Castle offering, she deadpans, "Pace yourself."
Such is the modern, wacky world of City Theatre's production of The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare's most classic and controversial comedies (depending on whom you ask). The plot focuses on the two daughters of Baptista, who has declared that the multiple suitors to the cherubic Bianca cannot wed her until his hostile spitfire of an elder daughter, Kate, is first betrothed. The romantic rivals are blessed by the arrival of the swashbuckling Petruchio, who agrees to woo and wed the firebrand before even setting eyes on her. He subsequently tries to tame his wild wife by acting mad and running her ragged or, in his own words, "kill a wife with kindness."
This play has been endlessly discussed, debated, argued about, railed upon – let's face it, the sentiment of Shrew is not part of our modern mentality: the idea of "taming" one's wife, let alone starving her, let alone depriving her of sleep ... then there's that speech at the end.
So much has been said and written and done with the ending – in which Kate argues that a wife should be obedient to her husband – that the play's conclusion oftentimes takes precedence over the rest of it. Director Jeff Hinkle, however, never loses sight of this comedy's fun, wild world, with its ridiculous characters, men masquerading under false identities, and three suitors vying for the same woman. Hinkle's production remembers the microwaved White Castle world it began with, and that allows for the play to have real coherency throughout.
That world might not be what everybody wants to see with The Taming of the Shrew. This is an environment where impervious alpha male Petruchio – who acts like he'd be a die-hard NASCAR fan – does in fact tame the bitchy but vulnerable Kate. There is a through line to their relationship and believable love between the charismatic David Meissner and Dawn Erin at the end of the play. In his stage notes, Hinkle writes, "Our own answers to these [relationship] questions may have less to do with the play itself than with our attitudes towards the issues and ideas it explores." Instead of attacking or skirting the issue, City Theatre's production serves it up for the audience to take as they will, and there's something very bold about that.
The modern setting does have its hits and misses. The good: Gremio looks and acts like some combination of LL Cool J, circa 1991, and a Homie doll; Petruchio often gallops onstage re-enacting the Monty Python and the Holy Grail faux horse ride (replete with coconut). The not-so-good: starting the second half of the show with an Austin Powers-esque urination sequence and forced malapropisms, such as turning Curtis into a Deadhead based solely on a forced reading of the word "pot."
Many times, the actors will stop in the middle of a line for comedic effect and get an easy, sitcom-level laugh at the expense of the line's meaning. And the production works very hard to turn every possible word into a dick joke, whether it's one that the Bard – who's pretty bawdy in his own right – meant to be raunchy or not.
Any modernization and placement of a Shakespearean play is met with scrutiny, though this writer has some misgivings about putting Padua into a burger joint. Still, Hinkle and company do a darn good job of honoring Shrew in all its wildness, lustiness, and fun.
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