What to do with Shrew? Not the woman, mind you — she can tend to herself in today’s day and age. But the play? Quite a dilemma, given how far gender roles have come in the modern world.
But while American women have made huge gains, other women around the world have not. And perhaps that is why both the oldest and the second-oldest free outdoor Shakespeare festivals in the United States have trotted out the abysmally sexist Taming of the Shrew this summer. New York City’s Shakespeare in Central Park earlier in the season featured an all-female cast, playing on the meta-message of the play.
Buffalo’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park uses female actors in the female roles (with one exception), male actors in most of the male roles, and goes full-on for the farce. All’s well as long as you don’t mind the liberal use of an actual slap-stick to emphasize blows and other punch-line additions, including a ta-DUM-dum drum roll.
The play-within-a-play scheme Shakespeare wrote is mostly dispensed with here. As a substitute, musicians providing songs and sound effects remain on the two-level stage and sometimes step off the balcony to take on a minor role. But director Steve Vaughan does away with the arm’s length perspective of the play’s message: everyone’s happier when women subject themselves to their husband’s wishes, no matter how unreasonable or abusive. In the course of wooing and taming his bride, Petruchio (a charismatic Chris Hatch) does indeed abuse her through sleep deprivation, starvation, and physical control. And, of course, Katharina (a charming and assertive Bonnie Jean Taylor) comes to feel she deserves the abuse.
Vaughan doesn’t so much sell the play’s message as surround it with plenty of broad humor. Too broad. Some of the Italian parts of the text become Spanish and Spanglish. Though the actors playing Lucentio (Jonas Barranca) and his father, Vincentio (Rolando Gomez,) have the Latino chops to pull off the Spanish dialogue, improvised responses such as “Arriba, arriba, quesadilla,” from the shrew’s father, Baptista (an otherwise wonderfully comic Norm Sham) dumb down the text and display a tin ear. Ta-DUM-dum.
Vaughan has cast this play in an 18th century pirate’s world, which results in some great hats and sea shanties, but otherwise adds no insight. In costume designer Ken Shaw’s capable hands, Kate starts out looking like a female Captain Hook, but her costume resembles a scullery wench’s as she becomes tamed. When she’s totally subdued, she gets something nice to wear again as long as she’s willing to throw it to the ground at her husband’s request. Petruchio, meanwhile, goes from swashbuckling hat to a costume of mismatched harlequin (his wedding clothes) to more subdued black and white when he and Kate are on the same page.
The play begins and ends with pirate tunes and two delightful dances choreographed by Terri Filips Vaughan. The second act is introduced by an all-female choir singing another similar drinking song, all of which add to the levity of a play containing content that should, by rights, induce outrage.
Taylor and Hatch have great chemistry (their first kiss is really, really, really long) as the sparring partners. There’s a nice bit when the starving and demoralized Katharina is left on the stage after Petruchio decides to cancel a visit to her father’s because she points out that it’s 2 p.m. and not 7 a.m., as Petruchio insists. With just a look and body language, Taylor indicates that she has finally figured out the rules of her oppressor’s game.
Hatch is a more sympathetic Petruchio than most. He is bent a mission, but manages to take off the sadistic edge, pleading harmony as his motivation. He overplays somewhat, though, when he interrupts beating his chest and yelling at his servants to wink at the audience. No matter how much sympathy he evokes, though, it’s hard for a modern audience to absorb the lines he speaks about how Katharina is his goods and chattel once he marries her. Similarly, when Katharina lectures other newlywed women on their duty to their husbands, it is also difficult to endure her words of how the women should offer their hands for their “masters” to rest their boots upon. Thankfully, Vaughan spares us this sight; Taylor kneels and extends her hand to him, and Hatch responds by kneeling, too and equitably taking her hands in his.
Marisa Pizzuto does a nice job as Bianca, suggesting that the younger sister not only knows how to use her good looks, but also how to stand up to her bully of a sister. Why she falls for Lucentio, disguised as the tutor Cambio (nasal twang, awkward gate, and even stranger posture) is anyone’s guess. But it’s easier to see why Hortensio (an earnest Marc Ruffino) and Gremio (spot-on comic David Lundy) have fallen for the sister who is both beautiful and knows how to sheathe her claws.
Arin Lee Dandes is entertaining as the feminine version of Biondello, the slightly dim and loquacious servant who is in on Lucentio’s plan to win Bianca. Zev Steinberg, playing Petruchio’s second, Grumio, has a lot of fun with the audience when he steps into the crowd in search of food for Katharina, only to raid people’s picnics for “meats and mustard” (actually consuming cherry tomatoes, cookies and someone’s partially filled bottle of wine on the night we were there) and pronounce them unfit for her.
If silliness and slapstick are what makes an entertaining play, Shakespeare in Delaware Park has hit the mark. Some might say outdoor summer performances of Shakespeare plays should concentrate on those titles that are best for light entertainment. But this production misses an opportunity to highlight the Bard’s true wit and help the audience explore the meaning this anachronistic play might hold for today.