Friday, February 10, 2012

taming of the shrew review

Hey guys--here's my latest review in the Post. They just posted it online this morning and there's already a negative comment (about the review) so let the slagging begin. :D I think changing up Shakespeare is something that people either love or hate; no middle ground on it. So I am prepared for the slings and arrows.

(But when they add modern words and phrases??? Come on...)

Anyway. Here's the piece as I turned it in to the editors, and here's a link to the Post's published version. Let me know what you think!


In a certain light, “The Taming of the Shrew,” a story about a husband “taming” his unruly, cantankerous wife, reads like a CIA “special rendition” handbook entry: psychological torture, sleep deprivation, withholding food--let the hilarity ensue!

And the blatant misogyny of the play isn’t only troublesome to modern audiences.
There is evidence that there has long been some degree of embarrassment about the subject matter, even some 300 years before women’s suffrage. This includes Shakespeare’s “induction,” a rarely-performed framing device that makes the entire story a play-within-a-play, as well as a sequel of sorts written by Shakespeare’s successor, in which the tamer Petruchio gets tamed himself by a new wife.

Examples like these would seem to argue against the view that the entire play was taken as satire in the late 1500s, that the Bard was mocking the harsh treatment of women by going completely over the top with it.

But misogyny or satire, the play is so often produced not only because it’s hilarious, with endless one-liners and situational humor--it also features a ten-round epic battle of wills between two of Shakespeare’s strongest, most vital characters, Petruchio and Katherine.

As imagined by director Kent Thompson, the couple (John G. Preston and Kathleen McCall) meets in a late-1950s diner owned by Katherine’s father in Padua. As illustrated on a huge map behind David M. Barber’s gorgeous set, Padua in this telling is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Pisa is large city on the east coast, and Verona, Petruchio’s home, is deep in the heart of Texas.

When suitors Gremio and Hortensio (Randy Moore and John-Michael Marrs respectively) seek the hand of Katherine’s younger sister Bianca (Christy McIntosh) her father refuses to allow her to wed until the shrewish Katherine is married first. Enter Petruchio, friend of Lucentio (Drew Cortese), a suitor from Pisa also seeking Bianca’s hand, who convinces Petruchio to wed Katherine and thus secure a rich dowry.

The leads are all superb--especially McCall as Katherine--all fully fleshed-out, “real” people relishing the thrust and parry of attempting to win love.

What becomes distracting is how far Thompson goes with his Americanization of the characters. Here we are treated to a pistol-packing, “yee-haw”-yelling Petruchio mixing it up with Lucentio’s servants from “Pisa,” whose Italian accents make them sound like extras on hiatus from “The Sopranos.”

The show threatens at every turn to become “The Comedy of the Two Stereotypes”--most of Petruchio’s household servants appear to be brain-dead, slack-jawed rejects from “Deliverance,” thus cementing for us the last two groups one can safely make fun of without being thought of as small-minded: Southerners and Jersey Shore rejects.

I suppose if you’re going to do a play in which the major point on which the plot turns is the subjugation of a woman, you might as well go for the prejudice trifecta.

Granted, some of these additions are genuinely funny. Patrick Halley as Lucretio’s
servant Biondello is a scene-stealer with tremendous comic timing, playing him as a sort of hyperventilating Lou Costello. And Preston’s Verona-on-the-Rio dialect doesn’t interfere with his readily apparent and heartfelt love for Shakespeare’s language, nor with his connection to the character.

And while it is important to bring modern audiences along when performing Shakespeare, there comes a point when all the added phrases--think “fuggedaboutit” and “y’all”--become pandering, and frankly, patronizing. Particularly irksome was Petruchio tacking on a string of “know what I means” after several jokes, as if the audience is too hopelessly thick to understand when it’s time to laugh.

And that’s the real crux of the matter: the play is written well enough that the jokes can and do stand on their own.

This is all to take nothing away from the actors, as they brought heart and genuine humanity to their characters within the constraints they were given.

But it’s safe to assume that Shakespeare kinda knew what he was doing. The audience would be better served by letting the jokes and the story tell themselves without getting in the way.

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