What are we to make of “The Taming of the Shrew,” William Shakespeare’s comedic celebration of woman-bashing and submisson? Kate, the rotten-tempered woman in question, is never actually struck by Petruchio, the man who decides to wed her for a big challenge and a bigger dowry. Instead she’s starved, publicly shamed, psychologically manipulated and essentially held captive. What other strategies would Shakespeare use if he were writing the play today? Water-boarding?
Today is the key word in that question and also the problem with “The Taming of the Shrew,” written about 425 years ago when only one woman was clearly allowed to be head-strong, and she ran the British Empire. Nowadays, women are heads of state, high-finance and corporations. Gender equity in the marketplace is still no reality, but socially we’ve come a long way in what used to be called the gender war. We no longer consider take-charge women — even a nasty one like Kate – as ripe for taming.
There’s a quandary here: For all its out-dated intolerance, “The Taming of the Shrew” is a stunning piece of playwriting. Depending on the director’s choices, it’s funny, fast and wonderfully written. And still highly offensive, especially in its final scene when (Major Spoiler Alert!) Kate delivers a speech about the many duties of women to men. There’s no getting around that scene – it might send you out laughing in ridicule, or maybe angry because you’ve been hoodwinked at the end of an otherwise pleasant night.
A particularly goofy and beautifully acted version opened Friday at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, which has an affinity for producing “The Taming of the Shrew.” The play opened the festival 25 years ago, and this production – gracefully directed by Matt Pfeiffer with sure-fire aim at providing the most stage-shtick a ticket can buy – marks the fourth time the festival takes on “Shrew.”
This is a “Shrew” made mostly for laughs, and I laughed a lot. (The way Shakespeare wrote it, the entire premise of the play was for laughs – it was presented by a troupe as a joke on a besotted low-life, but almost no one uses those first scenes.) The production features plenty of physical acting (especially between Ian Merrill Peakes’ Petruchio and Eleanor Handley’s Kate), a surfeit of effective mugging (Carl N. Wallnau and Eric Hissom excel in this), lots of music (by Alex J. Bechtel, leading the cast in song and in the instruments they play) and Olivera Gajic’s costumes that become more splashy as the show progresses.
Supporting players offer many fine turns: Brandon J. Pierce as a suitor to Kate’s good-natured sister, played by Ally Borgstrom, plus Dan Hodge and Brendan Doyle as servants, Dane McMichael as a fool and the commanding Linda Thorson as Kate’s mom. (Shakespeare wrote that role to be their father, and the festival’s decision to have another woman character in the guy-dominated play is welcome.)
Pfeiffer’s direction manages to make even the sexist basis for the play – that taming in such a fashion is acceptable – work as humor. If anything, this “Shrew” is as close as you can come to a farce without having the requisite five or six doors for people to barge through. As a result, all the antics that Pfeiffer (and probably the cast members) have created adorn the text and make fun of it, too.
But then there’s that last scene, in which Shakespeare turns all serious on us with a treatise about dutiful women. In a version by New York’s Public Theatre this summer in Central Park, a cast of all women automatically doubled the play’s sexism with gender confusion and added some stage business to make it so offensive, all you could do was laugh out loud. They also found a cunning way to turn the ending around, even as they uttered every word Shakespeare wrote in the main part of the final scene: They sang The Who’s rebellious “My Generation.”
At the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, the final scene comes complete with its outdated weightiness and shift in tone – and the cast also breaks into joyful song. Whether that song ameliorates the text that went before it, I can’t say. On opening night, the lyrics came across as one huge garble, overpowered by the instruments the cast was playing. It was the single major flaw at a point when the production calls out for dynamic clarity.
—“The Taming of the Shrew” runs through August 7 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org. Beginning July 21, the show runs in repertory with Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” with the same cast performing both in rotation.