“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break,” Kate (Ryan Benson ’21) delivers fiercely through clenched teeth to Petruchio (Zeb Mehring ’19). Not your Mama’s “Taming of the Shrew”, or I guess more accurately not your Daddy’s “Taming of the Shrew,” the production of director Sarah Young ’20 is more tragedy than comedy.
The play is an unapologetic portrayal of enslaving gender roles and unquestioned violence against women, and the production successfully creates a sharp, convincing and engrossing misogynistic dystopia that’s thankfully different and yet sickly similar to the world of its audience.
If Shakespeare’s not your go-to 16th-century cup of tea, “The Taming of the Shrew” centers around the wealthy Baptista Minola (Ryan Lim ’19)’s yin-yang daughters and their marital prospects. Bianca (Vanessa Copeland ’21), the soft-spoken and puppy-dog obedient heartthrob of Padua can’t see suitors until strong-minded kick-ass Kate is married.
A series of Shakespearean identity substitutions and setups leads to opportunistic sociopath Petruchio marrying Kate and “taming” her into the perfect wife. The heaviness of the difficult-to-watch “taming” (featuring starvation and domestic abuse) is offset by reflections on social class and witty, electric pun wars and goofy miscommunications driven principally by the exploits of servants Grumio (Lauren Bond ’21) and Tranio (Gabrielle Poisson ’21).
While there may be “small choice in rotten apples,” “The Taming of the Shrew”’s cast is about as not-rotten as you could pick. Benson is impactful in the emotional depth she brings to Kate’s “taming,” and Mehring made for an impressively complex smooth-talking, manipulative archvillain.
On the comedic face of the coin, Poisson and her accomplices Gremio (Eden Mendelsohn ’21), Hortensio (Elka Wade ’21) and Biondello (Adrianne Owings ’20) are a dynamic humor squad, and Bond, in her roles as Grumio and as impersonator-Vincentio is — in snobby theater reviewer terms — a “force.” Midway between domestic abuse and zesty Shakespearean zingers are the adorable romantics Bianca and Lucas Vázquez Bassat ’21 as Lucentio, and the cool, collected misogynistic father Baptista.
The strongest moments of the strong production are in the sometimes jarring, sometimes hilarious, always attention-grabbing sequences of back-and-forths. In comedy-world, one such edge-of-your-seat Shakespearean display of linguistic acrobatics is when servant Tranio assumes noble Lucentio’s identity and, woozy from his huge social-mobility leap, has a hilarious rapid-fire exchange with Gremio and Hortensio over their love for Bianca. Kate’s and Petruchio’s first meeting matches the powerful momentum of Tranio’s scene but in The Upside Down: tense, violent and moving.
I think the set of “The Taming of the Shrew” and the production’s costume choices are clues at the timelessness of the play, or at least the timelessness of this production. Petruchio’s “ridiculous” wedding outfit, designed to embarrass Kate and her family, included a fuzzy fur coat; Grumio wore scrunchies and a rainbow sweater and played with Chinese finger traps; the set was quaintly adorned with different potted plants, all as if to give the production a sense of floating-in-time, as if to say that sexism, class conflict and seriously, sexism, aren’t confined to the 1500s.
I love that the opposite of what a Shakespearean audience might have seen in “The Taming of the Shrew” is what makes it relevant today. The light comedy of Petruchio’s punny close of the first act is popped when he runs off stage with Kate violently slung over his shoulder. Instead of a happy wedding ending, the finale, Kate’s final monologue, is a cathartic expression of hopelessness. This production of the play is a paradox, a demanding reflection on how much has happened in 500 years and how much hasn’t.
Emily Schussheim | firstname.lastname@example.org