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The Taming of the Shrew refuses to be tamed

by | Jun 17, 2019 | Review | 1 comment

Bard on the Beach is presenting the Taming of the Shrew, directed by Lois Anderson.

In Bard on the Beach’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, the dresses are a lot more fun that the comic business. (Photo of Kate Besworth and Jennifer Lines by Tim Matheson)

Director Lois Anderson has brought us the all-yelling version of The Taming of the Shrew. It offers virtually no emotional access. And it doesn’t make sense.

In Shakespeare’s controversial script, Petruchio, who wants to marry a wealthy woman, sets his sites on Kate, who has a reputation in Padua for being a shrew. Petruchio decides to “tame” Kate, to make her conform to the submissive gender norm for women.

Artists interpret this script in wildly varying ways. Some think the play is flat-out sexist and make it their business to expose that sexism and dismantle its assumptions. I know of a production that was set in a literal — and grisly — meat market, for instance, and more than one interpretation has reversed the genders of all of the characters, making Kate and her sister Bianca comely young men who are treated as chattel.

More commonly in recent times, The Taming of the Shrew has been framed as a subversive love story in which Kate and Petruchio make a tacit pact to perform the expected gender roles while understanding that they are just that: performance. They engage in this game from a position of mutual respect.

In her production for Bard on the Beach, director Anderson plays a variation on this gender-as-performance strategy.

Anderson ups the ante of Kate’s oppression: the townsfolk of Padua, which is a town in the American Wild West in her telling, regularly break into chants of “Shrew! Shrew! Shrew!”

At the same time, the director reworks the text to give Kate more agency. Using existing lines, Anderson has created a soliloquy for Kate, for instance, reassigning many of Petruchio’s lines to her. She also gives the character more time alone onstage, which increases our sense of her interior life. Off the top, for example, Jennifer Lines’s Kate reacts to the first chants of “Shrew! Shrew!” with fury — and rifle fire — but, when she’s left alone, we see in Lines’s face just how humiliated, frustrated, and exhausted Kate is.

That’s illuminating but most of Anderson’s changes are confusing. Watching this show, I simply could not get a grip on the relationship between Kate and Petruchio.

In the text, Petruchio abuses Kate, starving her and depriving her of sleep until, according to your interpretation, she either submits to him or figures out that he’s inviting her to play the gender game.

Anderson weakens the rudder of this basic tension, both by making Kate more active and by turning Petruchio into more of a mensch. Directed by Anderson, Andrew McNee’s Petruchio still swaggers and brags, but he is also sexually bashful, often uncertain, and protective of Kate. Softening the terms of the play’s central relationship weakens its spine, destroys its arc  — and, crucially, obliterates Kate’s moment of enlightenment. In this production, Kate’s behaviour changes radically after a scene involving a dressmaker, but I have no idea why. If there was a flash of insight, I missed it.

And a whole lot of the revised Petruchio’s behaviour is incomprehensible to me. In the text, Petruchio shows up for his wedding to Kate dressed as a clown: it’s part of his campaign to get his bride to see the world on his terms. In Anderson’s telling, Petruchio originally plans to wear a suit to his nuptials but, witnessing the town’s ridicule of his betrothed, he changes into motley. Why on earth would he do that? How on earth would that help her or further his own ends? And, even though this Petruchio stares down the townsfolk when they chant “Shrew!”, he continues to play his public role as a shrew tamer. So he both polices Kate’s shaming and perpetuates it.

This Bard on the Beach production isn’t funny, either, although it tries very hard to be — too hard in fact. Sometimes it feels like every moment is crammed with comic business — there’s a lot of shoot-‘em-up gunslinger shtick, for instance — and the whole thing is paced at a frantic pitch, which makes it feel more desperate and deliberate than inspired.

And everybody is hollering their way through it. Lines almost never stops screaming.

That’s why the piece is so emotionally impenetrable.

There are redeeming qualities, of course. Andrew McNee, who is one of the best comic actors in the business, makes Petruchio’s bashfulness charming. He turns a simple, simple line, “Good morrow, Kate” into a master class in second-date awkwardness, stretching it out forever. More relaxed than many of the other players, Anton Lipovetsky (Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors) gets legit laughs by underplaying a lot of frustrated little asides. And Kate Besworth starts with a kind of valley girl take on Bianca and then turns her into something altogether weirder and more surprising.

Speaking of Bianca, costumer Mara Gottler goes to town with her. She gives Bianca a gold dress with a cut velvet overskirt that’s absolutely gorgeous, for instance. And some of the men’s costumes, including a softly pleated traveling coat worn by Lucentio, another of Bianca’s suitors, are equally impressive.

Anderson always brings a strong vision to her directorial projects. In past seasons at Bard, I’ve adored her reworked interpretations of Pericles and Lysistrata. This time out, though, her vision backfires. By upping Kate’s agency, Anderson is clearly trying to make the play more relevant and acceptable but, in some ways, I’ve never been so struck by the script’s unavoidable sexism. In Anderson’s interpretation, as in many others, Kate and Petruchio play a private game to negotiate the treacherous waters of gender. But Anderson presents all of the other citizens of Padua as such an oppressive collection of idiots that the implicit sense of superiority in Kate and Petruchio’s game is more apparent than ever. And the exaggerated privacy of Kate and Petruchio’s pact magnifies its selfishness: Kate shows zero solidarity with other women. In the play’s final scene, she humiliates two other new wives, including her sister Bianca, for not knowing how to play the game as well as she does. Her analysis saves her own skin, but makes her complicit in ongoing oppression. Somehow, in productions that employ subtler terms, I’ve always managed to miss this.

And maybe that’s the real lesson of Anderson’s take on The Taming of the Shrew: in terms of our current sensibilities — the script’s historical context is a whole other thing — the play is so structurally sexist that it mighty be best to acknowledge its fundamental cruelty and run with it.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW By William Shakespeare. Directed by Lois Anderson. A Bard on the Beach production. In the BMO Mainstage tent on Sunday, June 16. Continues until September 21. Tickets.


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1 Comment

  1. Lily

    Wow. The audience loved the Taming of the Shrew so much I felt I had missed something. People looked at me like I was not right in the head when I said I didn’t like it. The screaming was relentless and make the character so one dimensional. Your review expressed so well everything I felt about it. Thank you


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