In a not entirely surprising turn, the Delaware Shakespeare Festival's program notes for their production of The Taming of the Shrew have a distinctly defensive tone. Producing Artistic Director David Stradley mentions the cast and crew "wrestling with it," and is careful to note the reservations of director Samantha Bellomo and actor Charlie DelMarcelle (Petruchio) about presenting it to a modern audience. Stradley ends with a mission statement that doubles as a plea for tolerance: "Here at this Festival, we gather as a community in a safe place to come to a shared understanding of our strengths and our weaknesses, our successes and our failures." There is no doubt the DSF is aware of the play's problematic nature, and they succeed in distancing themselves from its questionable attitudes; however, it is less clear what artistic value they hope to convey by performing the play in a largely unaltered form.
The production's setting strikes a good balance between artistic interpretation and responsible social commentary. The vaguely Edwardian time period accounts for the play's antiquated attitudes, but it also allows costume designer Kayla Speedy to take full advantage of the period's fashions for a colorful and summery ensemble. The servants wear light waistcoats and pageboy caps, while the male higher classes sport full three-piece suits and appropriate headwear that cleverly nod to their characters' personalities. Sprightly old Gremio's lavender-checked suit and giant lime-green cravat show his flamboyant nature, and Lucentio's straw boater, plaid waistcoat, purple bow-tie, and curled mustache demonstrate a more restrained if still showy fashion sense. Petruchio's tasteful blue suit and spats indicate his high social status just as his lack of jacket and rolled-up shirtsleeves indicate his cheerful disregard for it. His wedding outfit – blue doublet and puffy shorts bedecked with orange ribbons, bare legs, and orange polka-dotted socks – is both ridiculous and thoughtfully coordinated to his favorite color pallette. The women's costumes are equally well-considered. Bianca's bright pink short-sleeved dress looks girly and breezy, especially compared to her sister Kate's stuffy mutton chop sleeves, high-buttoned collar with bow-tie, and bustle; however, Kate's Columbia blue skirt and matching pink-and-blue blouse show a similar desire for color. The outfits are showcased by scenic designer Dylan Jamison's set, which though minimalist by necessity (the production is performed in the round) still compliments the aesthetic: a series of three shallow platforms building from a four-pointed star to a central octagon, painted a variety of pastels and jewel-tones, and topped only by strings of old-fashioned gazebo lights. It's a perfect look for a Shakespeare in the Park production.
The cast leaves a similarly light-hearted impression, mostly relying on broad but amusing caricatures. Tabitha Allen plays Bianca as a cheerfully manipulative young lady, exaggerating her distress from Kate's attacks and bending her suitors to her will for no other reason than that she can. Leonard Kelly's performance as Christopher Sly, remaining onstage for most scenes as a spectator, serves as an amusing fourth-wall buster. Kelly fills Sly with a wide-eyed credulity whether he is reacting to the players or to the hoax being pulled on him; he shares his reactions to the events of the play equally with the frilly hat left behind by his "wife" as well as the audience in a kind of non-verbal soliloquy. Sly gets so caught up in the play he literally gets caught up in the play, assuming the role of Vincentio (though with Kelly's skill), and doses the audience he just left with a little metatheatrical chaos.
Felicia Leicht gives an excellent performance as Katharina, whose shrewishness stems from outbursts of her own quashed and poorly-understood desires. She instinctively flails at anyone standing in her way whenever she storms off-stage (a frequent occurrence), but it is a way of lashing out at the world as opposed to any one person. Leicht makes it clear, with Kate's dismay at Bianca's potential wedding, joy in bantering with Petruchio, and dazed reaction to his first kiss, that Kate desperately wants to be loved; her transformation in the last acts is more a realization that the easiest way for her to gain an expression of Petruchio's love and approval, in a way that she (and others) can clearly understand, is to moderate her behavior. Charlie DelMarcelle's performance as Petruchio is charming and madcap, though overall it lacks the same depth. His best work is in the few moments where he drops Petruchio's insouciant facade to express his regard for Kate with gentle seriousness, as in his speech about her "honest mean habiliments" in Act IV, Scene 3 and when he humbly kneels before her after her final soliloquy.
Bellomo maintains a light tone throughout the production, helping to mitigate the nastier undercurrents of sexism and horror in a plot that, after all, focuses on essentially trying to brainwash a woman into conformity. The staging of the last scene captures both this approach's success and its failure. After delivering her soliloquy with all sincerity, Kate genuflects in preparation for putting her hand beneath Petruchio's foot; however, it is Petruchio who kneels before her with a gentle "Why, there's a wench." Commentary about her amazing lack of shrewishness from the peanut gallery is trimmed down and rearranged, so the play ends with Petruchio's "Kiss me, Kate," and Kate's enthusiastic response (that proceeds through the beginning of the concluding musical number). By shifting the focus almost solely to Kate and Petruchio, Bellomo provides a touching resolution to their relationship and individual development. However, one cannot escape the fact that Kate's soliloquy was addressed to the other, and indeed to all, women. While she may have found her happiness in assuming a role that Petruchio went to great lengths to teach to her, the production offers no justification for why this should be a general solution instead of a highly specific one. Given that most of the male characters spend the majority of the play insulting Kate or bartering Bianca away like property, it is impossible to see how they are worthy of such respect.
"I know we will not solve the mystery of The Taming of the Shrew this summer," Bellomo writes in her director's note. "But in the attempt, we will uncover truths about ourselves and perhaps even discover whole new ways of thinking that will make the world a little bit better." Unfortunately, the root of The Taming of the Shrew's problems is no mystery, and unchallenged its blatant sexism will never make the world better. Though the audience seemed to enjoy the show, they also clearly didn't buy into its backward message; one nearby member loudly informed her husband, "Don't get any funny ideas." Despite the charm and humor of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival's production, its failure to engage with the play's central issue offers a tacit endorsement of its injustice: hardly a worthy artistic statement.