A lot of – ahem — water has gone under the bridge in the 400 or so years since William Shakespeare wrote Taming of the Shrew. After three waves of feminism, what possible relevance could the story of Katherine and Petruchio hold for contemporary audiences? He marries her against her vehement objections and uses straight up enhanced interrogation methods — starvation, sleep deprivation, and gaslighting — to bend her into submission. How does this still come off as comedy?
We went to see the opening night of Taming of the Shrew at the Hanna last Saturday and laughed heartily along with the rest of the audience. The director (Sara Bruner) and the Great Lakes Theater Festival (GLTF) cast have done an end run around the problems of the play by emphasizing broad, over-the-top comedy. Using material that is and is not in Shakespeare’s text, they create a context in which – sorry — it’s impossible to worry about equal rights for women.
Before we run through some of key moves of GLTF’s end run, we recommend that you look up a plot summary. Perhaps try this one (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVbN3_mddZM) by Overly Sarcastic Productions.
This GLTF production strikes some interesting discordant notes in the very first scene when university student Lucentio (Taha Mandviwala) arrives in Padua. While his servant Tranio drags the luggage noisily up the steps onto the stage, we notice that costume designer Leah Piehl has dressed Lucentio in clothing cut in conventional Renaissance fashion with a fitted vest over billowing sleeves and pantaloons but the fabric is a most unconventional powder blue. What? Tranio, too, strikes a discordant note for he is cast as a woman, actor Maggie Kettering, dressed as what she is — a woman. Huh? Who is gaslighting whom? This discord is an important part of GLTF’s end run, and none of it is in Shakespeare’s text. Put 2 check marks in the box labeled “extra textual.”
Next the beautiful and stereotypically feminine Bianca (Mandie Jenson) enters surrounded by her suitors. As Lucentio and Tranio look on, we learn that Bianca’s father will not let her marry until her older sister Katherine (Jessika D. Williams) finds a husband, unlikely given the devastating zingers that we see Katherine deliver at the suitors’ expense. That much is all in the text, but give GLTF’s costume designer 3 check marks in the extra textual box for Katherine’s sexy bustier, tight pants, and Cuban heels, boots made for walking (all over you).
For the suitors, too, costuming does much to set the tone. One of them, Gremio (Lynn Robert Berg), is a wizened little old man dressed all in red like a Christmas elf. (Is this the same actor who dominated the stage as the Demon Barber, Macbeth, and Richard III?) How does his wealth make this ridiculous, crab-walking old man a suitable match for Bianca?
The two suitors part, resolved to find a man willing to marry Katherine for her money. Enter Petruchio (Jonathan Dyrud) and his man Grumio (Joe Wegner). Their entrance is also heralded by luggage dragged noisily up the steps to the stage. As the actors deliver Shakespeare’s text, which leads to master beating servant, Petruchio departs from Shakespeare’s text by lifting a pair of giant dumb bells out of his luggage and cranking out a few reps. Alternate curls! Overhead presses! Inflated dumb bells! Was there CrossFit in Shakespeare’s day? Hortensio (Eric Damon Smith), the second suitor and Petruchio’s old friend, sees all this and thinks that maybe Petruchio is the man he’s looking for. He tells Petruchio that, as Overly Sarcastic puts it, Kate is “filthy rich and wicked hot” but that she’s also, as Shakespeare puts it, “intolerable curst and shrewd and froward.” Petruchio is not just undaunted but deliciously challenged, and the one sided courtship proceeds.
Shakespeare’s text of Petruchio’s courtship of Katherine includes some very funny R-rated word play and an ongoing battle between suitors disguised as tutors vying for Bianca’s affection. There’s also some extra textual business in which rolled up carpets are employed as bludgeons and restraints. The GLTF cast milks this material for all it’s worth, aided we suppose, by Fight Captain Maggie Kettering.
So, broad comedy saved a problematic play. Oh the costumes! We assure you, prints and patterns like these were never worn in William Shakespeare’s day. Stage movement, reversed gender and gender-blind casting also played a part, but subtler touches like anachronistic luggage, eyewear and haircuts also gave us a lot to smile about. And in nearly all the ensemble scenes, introductions and overtures are accompanied by courtly balletic bows and courtesies, thanks to, we suppose, Dance Captain Joe Wegner. Hey, it was a lot of fun.
Taming of the Shrew is at the Hanna Theatre thru 4/14. For tickets $15 – $80 go to GreatLakesTheater.org or phone 216-241-6000.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas