The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare's troubling comedy, done old-school, gets a new lease on life
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., May 14, 2010
The Taming of the Shrew
311 W. Seventh, 310/243-6426, email@example.com
Through May 23
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.
"For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Kate and her Petruchio." Sure, when Shakespeare originally penned those lines, the couple in the couplet was Romeo and Juliet, but over the last century, it's the star-crossed lovers from The Taming of the Shrew who have set the bar for wretchedness and sorrow. At least, the teens from Verona are left to rest in peace as the curtain falls. But as soon as Kate's stern sermon on a wife's duty to serve and obey her lordly husband falls on a modern audience's ears, this once spirited and independent woman comes off looking like a Stepford wife in a nightmare marriage, condemned to a life sentence of waiting hand and foot on a bullying, bipolar control freak.
The problem is, we can't help hearing those 16th century sentiments with 21st century ears and applying our ideas of gender equality and physical and mental abuse, and even servitude for that matter, to what are, at base, stock characters imported from the bawdy, knockabout world of commedia. Such broadly drawn types were never meant to shoulder the weight of the whole feminist movement, much less all our contemporary notions about relationships, which is why so often when that final scene is played today, they buckle under the burden and go flat.
Happily, that isn't the case in the Hidden Room Theatre's production of Shrew, which is touted as hewing closely to the "original practices" of Shakespeare's day – period costumes, props, music, dance, lighting, and casting style (i.e., no women). This approach has yielded quite the handsome show, most notably in the sumptuously detailed attire from Cherie Weed and the music supplied by Jennifer Davis and her fellow musicians. The thing is, no amount of Elizabethan doublets or lutes and recorders or men in skirts can make us hear the play as Shakespeare's audience did, filtered through its values and worldview. What makes the production work for us now has more to do with its approach to the play and to play itself.
Director Beth Burns pays careful attention to the play's framing device, wherein a drunkard is tricked into believing he's really a lord, setting us up to see how in this world people have roles imposed upon them but can also choose new roles for themselves. Petruchio is one who specializes in the latter, and in Judd Farris' imperturbable portrayal – he's the immovable object to the irresistible force of Ryan Crowder's tempestuous Kate – his "taming" feels less like torture than a "tough love" (admittedly, very tough) way of teaching her that she's bought into the shrewish part that the world has cast on her and that she doesn't have to play it. Crowder, in a finely wrought turn, gives us a Kate whose ferocity is rooted in righteous indignation, and his expression betrays a woundedness at the way she's treated. But then near the comedy's end, when she surrenders to Petruchio's idea of play, a lovely light dawns on that drawn countenance and in those eyes, and we see her transformed. Thus, we can see the place from which her homily on obedience springs: She owes her life – or at the very least, her new identity – to this man who married her.
Crowder and Farris receive admirable support from their fellow players, all of whom seem united in this notion of play as renewing force. In performing for us, they are at play, and they lure us into this hidden room, this play-house, where we may recast ourselves as lords alongside the drunkard Sly. And therein we may discover liberation for a so-called shrew – and for a play too often weighted down with woes.