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Shrew Tames Audiences Nicely Hot

Georgina Petronella
Written by Georgina Petronella     October 05, 2007    
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Shrew Tames Audiences Nicely

Photos: Scott Suchman

  • Taming of the Shrew
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Shakespeare Theatre Company
  • September 25-November 18, 2007
Acting 4
Costumes 5
Sets 4
Overall 4
This is a big year for the Shakespeare Theatre. The company has just opened a new venue—the Sidney Harman Hall—which will operate in addition to the existing Lansburgh Theatre. The two theatres collectively will be known as the Harman Center for the Arts. The Center marks an ambitious turning point for Lansburgh, as the company hopes to transform itself into a big-name destination theatre. The inaugural production of the season is The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman in the Lansburgh. The story concerns a rich gentleman of Padua trying to marry off his daughters. Baptista Minola (Nicholas Hormann) declares that the elder Katherina (Charlayne Woodard) must be married before the younger Bianca (Lisa Birnbaum). This rule causes much despair throughout the land, for Bianca is fair and her elder sister is a shrew. Luckily, another gentleman named Petruchio (Christopher Innvar) swaggers into town seeking a wealthy wife. Bianca’s would-be suitors quickly entice Petruchio into setting his sights on the elder daughter. Katherina is, of course, opposed to the match, but married to Petruchio regardless. This frees up the field for Bianca, and a bevy of suitors pursue her, playing fast and loose with the truth to help them in their wooing. Eventually, a leader emerges from the pack, all is sorted out, and Bianca’s hand is won.

This company stuck to gloomier material last season, and a comedy is a welcome relief. Narelle Sissons’ set design is vivid and inventive. A neon pink scrim greets the audience, setting the stage for the razzle-dazzle fleshy flash of Padua. (Like many other productions, this one cuts the tangential Induction entirely, placing us smack dab in Padua from the start.) Padua proves to be a most materialistic land. When the scrim lifts, we are greeted with a large drop consisting of a woman’s derrierre. The pursuit of this object of lust shapes the rest of the play. Other set highlights include revolving doors, mirrored hallways, and a smashingly red floor. The mirrored halls are used to amusing effect by preening actors. Every so often the lights swoop over the audience and we see ourselves reflected in the mirrors. This implicates the viewers in the action, making us voyeurs into the sexy, sinful world of Padua. As is typical for this company, all of these set elements exude expense.

The costumes, designed by Miranda Hoffman, are modern with imaginative hints from the 1940s and 1950s. The costume choices serve the characters well. Bianca’s suitors are attired in snazzy suits and sleazy mustaches with a hint of sweaty mobster wafting about them. Hormann, as Baptista, is especially suavely attired, and is somehow reminiscent of game show host Alex Trebek. Petruchio is the exception to all this finery; he is casually dressed, befitting his earthy, meaty-pawed persona. As for the ladies, there are only a few of them; this is a heavily male cast. Bianca is daintily done up, however, in contrast to Katherina, who stomps about in pants and vests that show off her sinewy arms.

This production does well by avoiding the typical mistake of oversimplifying its protagonists. From the moment Petruchio roars into town on his motorcycle we cannot take our eyes off of him. Innvar is sexy and robust, with a velvety booming voice made for the stage. He stands in stark contrast to the boyish, lanky figures that comprise Bianca’s harem. This production doesn’t soften any of Petruchio’s edges; he is just as mean and callous as he can be to Katherina. In their first brutal meeting, Innvar doesn’t hesitate in manhandling his wife-to-be, pulling her about and smacking at her derriere until she is dizzy with confusion. Woodard is not nearly as charismatic as her costar, but she manages to turn in an adequate performance. Her best scene by far occurs on the road back to Padua. Petruchio and Katherina are returning to visit her family after their wedding. Petruchio has spent a long couple of days literally starving his wife into submission, as well as withholding sleep and proper clothing from her. There’s no way to make his plan nice or politically correct, as this production realizes to its credit. The taming is ugly, but Innvar adds a real note of desperation as he bends her to his will. This shade of exhaustion doesn’t stop him from hurting her, but it does add a tiny (very tiny) dab of humanity. Katherina finally has enough of his foul treatment, and capitulates to her husband by wearily agreeing with him that the sun is really the moon. This is a crucial turn in the relationship. Woodard makes Katherina’s surrender, although sincerely done, into a kind of discovery about the meaninglessness of words. This turns her submission into a type of foreplay, as Katherina slowly figures out what will please her husband, and decides that he really isn’t asking so much of her. She begins to leave her shrewish ways behind her, along with, yes, some of her spirit. In this scene, Katherina’s different shades come to light. Mostly, though, Woodard stays strictly in bland shrew territory.

The celebrated final speech, during which Katherina lectures the other women about the submission a woman owes her husband, is nothing special. The one strong point comes when Woodard declares that a woman’s soft, weak exterior should engender a similar interior, all the while shaking her muscled arms toward the sky. The contradiction between words and reality is delicious, and the messy relationship between the leads speaks volumes. There are some dull spots, however, and in particular we get bogged down at Petruchio’s country estate. The second act begins with two servants freaking out about their master’s imminent return with his new wife. The staging is confusing and overly complicated, and we miss the crucial information about who these people are and how they relate to the plot. Other extraneous bits of business (including an impromptu fashion runway) prove tiresome and tangential. The final scene hits another false note. Bianca’s wedding seems unnaturally hearty and forced. One sign of trouble occurs when everybody on stage is whooping and cheering, while everybody in the audience is deathly silent. These quibbles are minor, however; and fail to dull the overall charm of this production.

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