BWW Review: TAMING OF THE SHREW at Richmond Shakespeare Festival

BWW Review: TAMING OF THE SHREW at Richmond Shakespeare Festival

Why should any audience today be offended by William Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW?

Could be the title's presumption that any woman needs to be tamed. Could be the word "shrew." We don't use the word anymore but we know what it means. A disagreeable woman. Potty-mouthed people use another word now.

The program says it's a comedy. Old geezers lusting after young nubile women. People pretending to be other people, being exposed when the real people show up. Shakespeare follies.

Yes. But also - the main character accepts an undesirable bride for the large dowry she comes with and relishes the challenge of "domesticating" her. To do this, he gets paid to take her away, ties her to a horse and then denies her food, sleep and liberty. In 2019 you can get a Protective Order for that.

Signor Baptista Minola of Padua is rich. He has two marriageable daughters. The younger, fair Bianca has many suitors but her older sister Katerina ("Kate") is a foul tempered shrew and Padua's custom is that the older daughter must marry before the younger can.

Having heard of Baptista's dilemma, Signor Petruchio has "come to wife it wealthily in Padua." He makes a deal with Baptista for the marriage.

After "taming" Kate, Petruchio brings her back to Padua for Bianca's wedding where in a test of marital loyalty she is the only wife to obey her husband's command before she lectures the other wives to love, honor and obey their lord husbands.

Auctioning off your daughters. Lessons in cruel husbandry. Was the 2019 Richmond Shakespeare Festival audience bothered by the trivialization of the female specie? I'm sure. These are serious times. However the Festival crowd skewed upper middle age where the Me2 movement might not be the strongest. My teenage daughters and I were rattled. For the majority, the comedy softened the blow of everything else. Nothing wrong with that. And the comedy, led by two or three actors was very good indeed. I could be wrong, but I think the director knew what she was doing.

Quill Theater produces this play with an all-female staff and sensibility. The difference the gender reversal made was contingent upon the nuance provided by the actor. The more seasoned actors brought their own sensibilities to inform the men they were playing. The less experienced actors (and there seemed to be many of them), short on nuance and struggling with pentameter, were less successful.

More than gender blind casting, this choice allows the story to be told through a purely feminine lens. And since the treatment of a woman is core to the action, it is most appropriate. And like any experiment it both succeeds and struggles as well.

Director Chelsea Burke infuses the tale with modern music and song both internal and external to the script featuring women's journeys in life. Externally it provides a layer of commentary that colors the ensemble's approach. Ms. Burke uses it internally one significant time, I think, to show us her cards. After getting paid, forcing her to leave her home, stopping for a rest along the way, Petruchio serenades his bride with the Police song "I'll be Watching You." Danger Will Robinson!

In many productions, this play, being a favorite Summer RomCom, Petruchio is the one who gets transformed. He starts off as a thick headed, alpha male bully who deprives his wife for her own good out of concern for her - only to be intellectually bested by her time and time again. Being one of the greatest writers for women, Shakespeare gives the actress who plays Kate all of the tools to turn the tables on each of Petruchio's schemes so that she slowly domesticates him.

Otherwise it looks like spousal abuse. Like here.

Not that this play has to be palatable. Director's choice.

Bianca Bryan played Petruchio with skillful command of her craft. I have never hated Petruchio before. This actress can do that. But she gave him no chinks. No vulnerabilities. He seemed cruel and lacking empathy, leaving us feeling the same towards him and making him uncomfortable to watch.

BWW Review: TAMING OF THE SHREW at Richmond Shakespeare Festival
Photo by Aaron Sutten

The idea that this is abuse was supported by the choice to not have Michelle Greensmith's Kate retaliate. The spit and fire she shows in front of her father became weak and passive after her wedding. Like a victim.

Could that have been the very point? Examining the true nature of that cruelty for what it is? Petruchio isn't a misinformed good old neanderthal, he's a creep. Period. I like that. Steals Kate's entry into the Shakespeare Princess Pantheon, but I like it.

You need some Shakespeare follies after that. The follies mainly succeed due to the comic stylings of two clowns. Maggie Bavolack doing her "crooked old man" funny girl/boy thing as the neighbor Gremio, who lecherously seeks Bianca's hand, as well as Emily Berry playing the weird, crazy-interesting Grumio, abused man-servant to Petruchio.

The problem is the last scene. Unless there is marital parity between the two, it is truly sad to see Katarina praising the man. She says he can put his boot in her hand when you know he's putting his boot on her neck. The only alternative is for us to praise him for whipping her into shape for her own good. Both versions stink.

Ms. Burke smartly puts a mini platform stage center so her actors can have a level to play with. She then choreographs her dozen or so actors seamlessly. The costumes ranged from stunning to bizarre but took away little from the timeless feeling of the evening.

Great literature that stands the test of time does so because it can weather the changing moral climate. The treatment of women and minorities was a common theme for the Bard. A 1590 feminist, he would approve of Quill Theater's very current interpretation and that amidst the follies and chuckles some truth got through.

Quill Theater exposes Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by turning it into a cautionary tale of spousal abuse. And the funny scenes of course.


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From This Author Fred Kaufman