Staging The Taming of the Shrew with its central theme of “taming” a strong woman to be a “stepford wife” is a special challenge because this theme is so out of tune with our time and our sensitivity to sexism. The Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew approaches this challenge by going beyond the taming of Kate by Petruchio, exploring infatuations and attractions between other characters in an all-male production. Although these other relationships complicate the story, the visually stunning stage and upbeat music by Duncan Sheik entertained the audience for over three hours, including a 30 minute intermission.
Coincidentally, at the Delacorte Theatee in Central Park, New York’s Public Theater’s all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew is being staged with the same running dates. In the program notes, director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar speculates that single-sex casting might be the only way to stage this play.
Iskandar exploits our assumptions to stage a very different production. His all-male cast caricatures the characters and their attitudes toward life, highlighting, and deconstructing the lines and plot elements that have become offensive to contemporary audiences. This production’s Bianca is a tall, well-built Bianca with a Barbie aura (Oliver Thornton) in a pink dress, wearing, high heels and sunglasses, and Lucentio played by charming and boyish Telly Leung in white pants with a cod piece deconstructs our assumption about Bianca as a petite, docile, and beautiful woman with many suitors. Iskandar does not stop there, however. Throughout the performance, he suggests homoeroticism among the characters, including Lucentio and Tranio (Matthew Russell) and Bianca and Biondello (Drew Foster).
The stage backdrop and floor are painted in gold, symbolizing the richness of the city of Padua. In front of the golden backdrop, scenic designer Jason Sherwood created, on a revolving stage, a two-story structure that consists of a set of spiral staircases, a tower, and catwalks. This structure allows the actors to freely travel to and from different locales without scene changes. The upper half of the tower (on the second “floor” of the structure) functions as a gigantic, three-dimensional box ornament. Each surface’s design gives a sense of general locality and reflects the characters and their actions in a particular moment. There is a blue tile surface that suggests the city of Padua. On another surface is a fashion magazine cover with a woman in a cocktail dress holding a scarlet rose. This surface is shown when Thornton seductively sings and poses asthe self-absorbed Bianca. After the intermission, the printed surfaces are rolled down and a chandelier is lowered from the flying space, providing more performance space on the second floor for the second half of the show.
The lighting design by Seth Reiser compliments Sherwood’s set. The effects include moving lights with gobo patterns that play over the audience and brings them into the fantastic world of Shakespeare/Iskandar. In Act 4, Scene 5, when Petruchio (Peter Gadiot) insists that it is the moon, and not the sun, which shines “bright and goodly,” the stage is lit with harsh, orange lights, making this pivotal scene (in which Katherina, performed by Maulik Pancholy, once again realizes the futility of reasoning with her husband) memorable.
Loren Shaw’s costumes underscore the personalities, occupations, and differences in position and situation. For example, Bianca’s pink dress in the earlier scenes is decorated with a golden bodice and later feathers are added, signifying her status as a “golden” asset to both her father and future husband. While, throughout the play, Katherina’s costumes stay subdued, underscoring her position as outside her “community” that focuses on the display of wealth and luxury. The somber and shaded tone also suggests a depth of intellect and personality, which puts her into conflict with a society that only values women as objects to be used in commercial transactions.
Duncan Sheik, the songwriter known for his Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening, has provided many of the songs used in this production. Though the pieces are not from Spring Awakening, Sheik's songs create an aura of adolescence to the production. The characters are young adults, standing on the cusp of adulthood, and in the musical numbers, the performers stop, step forward, and sing to the audience. Iskandar explains that these songs allow the women characters to express their feelings, in place of soliloquies that Shakespeare did not write for the female characters of this play.
His Katerina is physically strong. Their well-choreographed fight scene (choreographed by Chase Brock) in Petruchio’s house shows her compatibility to her husband. On their way to Padua, Gadiot’s Petruchio struggles to pull the cart filled with his servants and Vincentio. It is only when Pancholy’s Katherina pushes that it starts to move. Pancholy’s wink and smile to the audience is priceless, reminding the audience of who really has power.
Pancholy’s Katherina, evokes a sense of independence, intellect, and genuine compassion toward other women. The most moving point in the play is Kate’s last speech “Fie, fie! Unknit the threating unkind brow.” Pancholy delivers this speech in such a way as to leave an impression that she is confiding to Bianca and the Contessa that this is the only way for women to survive. As he speaks, Pancholy’s Katherina begins to look like someone facing execution. By the time he hits the lines “And when she is forward, peevish sullen, sour, and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel/ And graceless traitor to her loving lord?” At this point, Pancholy is on his knees, extending his arms to the Contessa and Bianca, who are also kneeling. The three women’s expressions reveal their utter despair and sadness. Katherina, among the three, in this production, might be the most fortunate in that she could marry a man with whom she is sexually and intellectually compatible. As Katehrina leaves the stage with a vague smile, following Petruchio, the Contessa and Bianca are left in bewilderment, not knowing if they have chosen the right men.
André De Shields plays Gremio, one of the suitors to Bianca, is a Cardinal in this production. This is a choice that highlights the character’s hypocrisy and foolishness. Gremio dies in a heart attack, which allows Shields to also play the characters of Curtis (Petruchio’s chief servant) and Vencentio, the father of Lucentio Rick Hammerly’s Contessa (the widow in the script), in a black and gold costume that reminds one of the Day of the Dead, underscores her role as a widow and then a wife of Hortensio (Tom Story). Iskandar certainly made conscious and creative casting choices, considering race, sex, gender, and age of both the characters and actors.
This production can also be seen as an early-summer celebration for the Company. Each performance begins a half an hour before the curtain when the performers gather in the lobby, which is transformed into a medieval open market in Padua where the staff members sell scarves, ceramics, crafts, clothes, food and drinks to the audience. Leung plays the piano while others play the guitar and saxophone, sing, and dance (including with patrons). Thornton makes a dramatic entrance to the theatre through one of the front glass doors. The intermission is an “intermezzo” for the audience to enjoy. The tireless performers sing, dance and encourage the audience to join them on stage. The pre-show and the intermezzo serve as a place for both the performers and audiences to mingle without the conventional boundaries. As a result this production brings such joy and high spirit that we forget our normal skepticism and criticism of the play.