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A CurtainUp Review
The Taming of the Shrew
In spite of its major casting gaffe, this production has much to commend it. Before we have heard a line of the play, we are drawn back to a boomtown atmosphere via the piano player on stage (Jonathan Mastro), tickling the ivories with the rhythms of ragtime and classical music. And it’s not just the music that is gratifying here. A good deal of the credit for the 19th century magic must go to Donyale Werle and Anita Yavitch, whose set (a rustic country house with countless windows, ladders, and doors) and costumes (from haute couture to raffish rags) do far more than decorate the stage. They create an ambience in which one feels the winds of change as if one had suddenly entered a world in which enterprising folks could gain property and wealth, and perhaps a good wife or husband.
Arin Arbus, who intelligently directs here, has genuinely extended the territory of the Elizabethan drama. A program note cites that the production text is based on Shakespeare’s 1623 folio and adds lines from the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew. It's a long evening but the pay off is that we have the opportunity to watch the charming Introduction, that play-before-the-play, which shows us the gulling of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly and his supposed metamorphosis into a Lord.
Although other directors have retained this framing device, Arbus ratchets up its theatricality by having the “Lord” eventually sit in the front row of the orchestra to watch the interlude (The Taming of the Shrew, of course) put on by actors in a travelling theatrical troupe. Thus, she never allows us to forget that this is a play-within-a-play, and what we see transpiring on stage is not real but only a shadow of reality. Add Christopher Sly’s miraculous morphing into a Lord (during the Induction) prefigures Katharina’s more arduous changing from a “shrew” to a proper wife in the main action and one can really peel the onion of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy.
There are three plots interwoven into Shakespeare’s Shrew: The Christopher Sly Introduction (often excised); the love-plot of Lucentio and Bianca; and the love-hate plot between Petruchio and Katharina. All are here done with less glitz but more psychological complexity and nuanced acting. Maggie Siff is a very shrewd “shrew.” Siff’s Katharina (Shakespeare’s first draft for Beatrice) gives as good as she gets here. Her famous “obedience” speech from Act 5 succeeds, largely because she conveys that she’s actually the “tamer,” and not the “tamed.” Her Katharina takes the wind out of Petruchio’s sail, not with force, but by wisely acquiescing to his whims. To be fair, Andy Grotelueschen is merely miscast here as the lothario Petruchio (Remember his excellent Cloten in Cymbeline last season?). He simply needs a different role to showcase his talent.
There is fine support from Kathryn Saffell, as Katharina’s sister Bianca, who knows how to play the family’s “spoiled pet” to perfection. John Keating’s Tranio possesses ideal comic timing, and John Pankow’s Grumio inhabits Petruchio’s servant with suitable understatement. It’s impossible to comment on all the smart touches that make this Shrew snap to attention, but gratefully it’s done with no tyrannical whip in Petruchio’s hand.
There’s no doubt that the entire ensemble feels at ease with Shakespeare’s language (voice coach Andrew Wade). Equally important is their boundless enthusiasm. If you sit in either orchestra section abutting the stage, your head will likely swivel as actors leap on and off the performing space, and circulate through the aisles. Wherever you sit, there’s marvelous fun in watching all the performers scheming, hiding, lying, or assuming disguises (only Bianca remains totally herself) in this shape-shifting play.
To sum up, Arbus goes the full distance with this Shrew, remaining faithful to Shakespeare’s tale and bringing to fresh live by transposing the setting to the American frontier. While the lack of chemistry between its leading principals is a drawback, Siff’s Katharina compensates.
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