The Taming of the Shrew is quite possibly the only Shakespeare play that typically comes with a disclaimer. Whether it is a plea to excuse a theater’s reproduction of Elizabethan sexism or to accept their modern remixing of the Bard’s work in order to avoid it, most companies are aware that their production is bound to offend somebody, and take steps in program notes and pre-show speeches to make their chosen position clear and ask for the audience’s understanding. The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival follows the same tack, and dramaturg Heather Helinsky calls Shrew “a play of contradictions without any easy answers” — but while some might use this as an excuse to avoid taking a position on a problematic play, the PSF is made of stronger stuff. Just as Helinsky’s essay points out the contradiction between the play’s message that women should be tamed in a historical era famously governed by a woman who submitted to no one, their production confronts the contradictions of the play — and its title character — head on.
This production omits the partial frame narrative of Shrew, wherein a drunken Christopher Sly is kidnapped by a passing nobleman and subjected to an evening of light-hearted gaslighting and comedy. However, the production maintains the distance of the play within a play with its setting, a theater within a theater. Scenic designer David P. Gordon’s set looks like a backstage, a multi-story wooden structure with spiral staircases and ladders, filled with prop bins, musical instruments, and racks of costumes. The implied size and grandeur of its theater (which is prepared to field anything from fresh apples to upright pianos to rubber chickens) is reinforced by Olivera Gajic’s costume design. Modern dress is indiscriminately mixed with luxurious reproductions of early 17th-century fashion, as though the actors were interrupted halfway through changing into their costumes. Kate first appears in stylish black heels, ripped jeans, white t-shirt, and black corset; Lucentio and Tranio both wear doublets over their street clothes (Lucentio in a waistcoat, trousers, and orange bow-tie that matches Tranio’s t-shirt). To complete his disguise of his master, Tranio dons an entirely old-fashioned outfit complete with hose and puffy shorts, whose codpiece he uses as a purse; needless to say, the other characters find this somewhat off-putting. Petruchio at first looks the most modern, with aviator shades, black shirt and trousers, and a red jerkin nearly indistinguishable from a leather jacket; however, his wedding attire — puffy shorts, scanty gladiator armor, and lion skin — more than make up for it with its chronologically scattered and clever allusion to Gremio’s earlier comparison of marrying Kate to the labors of Hercules.
Nevertheless, the production’s greatest strength is its cast, who are all individually funny while expertly playing off each other. As Kate and Petruchio, Eleanor Handley and Ian Merrill Peakes have a crackling mental and physical chemistry that makes for some thrilling verbal exchanges and some hilariously brutal slapstick fight scenes. Handley’s Kate is intimidating and volatile (to the extent that other characters frequently stop mid-sentence and fearfully search the stage to make sure she’s not nearby) but seldom out of control; Handley makes it clear that she can never truly be tamed, only convinced that Petruchio’s love and outlook on life are both worth having. Peakes, meanwhile, plays Petruchio as a quick-thinking adapter who is clearly making up his relationship as he goes along — which in turn heightens the stakes as he becomes more and more invested in it. His “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak; ‘tis charity to show” is a genuine question to the audience, plaintively begging for some guidance to win Kate’s trust and love.
To note the vital comedic talents of the supporting roles would essentially be to repeat the entire cast list: every actor on the stage adds their own playful spin on their role, no matter how minor. As Grumio, Eric Hissom delivers impressively side-splitting sarcasm and acrobatics with equal panache. As Gremio, Carl N. Wallnau perfectly balances his Fussy Old Neighbor mode with almost romantic (but definitely funny) musical inclinations, setting his proposed dowry for Bianca to song and repeatedly working on his magnum opus Sweet, Sweet Lady Bianca (“please stop leading me on-ca”). These songs (as well as the rest of the production’s music) are ably accompanied by Ilia Paulino in a number of witty, musical ensemble roles. On top of the pitch-perfect pratfalls and sportive musical performances, the cast clearly understands the humor of the play deeply enough to augment it with their own ad-libs that add to the spontaneity, whether to explain a missing character (“Gregory got tickets to Hamilton!”) or just highlight that art is pain (Petruchio, dashing up the very long aisle with Kate over his shoulder: “Too many damn steps!”)
Director Matt Pfeiffer is known for his incorporation of live music into his productions, and he and composer/sound designer/music director Alex J. Bechtel are in top form here. The cast gathers round the piano and casually sings several pieces before the production starts, a half-serious performance that adds to the production’s metatheatrical theme. The production’s first official number is the Elizabethan folk song “Heart’s Ease” (infamously requested in Romeo and Juliet by Peter the servant to lighten the mood around so many dead Capulets); its closing song is the 2013 piece “Heart’s Ease” by Josh Ritter, which contains some allusions to Shrew itself (“I've been with beauties and I've been with some / That even speaking of them would be like / Using the moonlight to describe the sun”). Besides a number of high-energy musical gags and cast singalongs (like Andrew Bird’s “Minor Stab”), Pfeiffer also uses music more contemplatively. A wordless scene before Act III’s wedding accompanied by First Aid Kit’s “In the Hearts of Men” shows both Kate’s and Petruchio’s uncertainty: the former contemplating running away, the latter lovestruck and lost with how to proceed, while the refrain “the parts we play to convince others” highlights that both characters are trying to figure out how to express their true selves.
However, no amount of music or comedy could counteract the mishandling of Shrew’s inherent sexism, and it is with his deft and thoughtful (not to mention funny) handling of this potential minefield that Pfeiffer shows his true mastery. His solution is to put the focus on the shrew in question and feature her agency in her “transformation”. Characters who complain about her do so out of a (well-founded) fear of Kate and her actions, not solely because she violates social norms. Besides showing her choose to stay for her wedding, Pfeiffer also cuts Hortensio’s lines in 4.5, making the decision to play along with Petruchio’s misidentification of celestial objects solely Kate’s. Even the reductive gender dynamics of her speech in 5.2 are undercut by the staging. Petruchio is hopeful, but not at all certain, that she’ll play along with his bet; meanwhile, Kate’s pointed interactions with the widow (Karen Peakes) and Bianca (Ally Borgstrom), who have insulted her and her husband, make it clear that she is adapting a role to deliberately make them uncomfortable. She concludes her speech by placing her hand underneath her husband’s foot — then capturing his leg and forcing him to hop around the stage, in a delightful reversal of a gag from their first scene together as well as a rejection of her speech’s pretended authority.
Though it is impossible to erase The Taming of the Shrew’s problematic nature, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival shows that its contradictions can be confronted without excusing them. Their musical production is smart and funny: a showcase of their talented cast and a tribute to the woman at the play’s heart.