No review of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew would be complete without the obligatory mention of how its inherent misogyny makes it incredibly distasteful to modern audiences, second only perhaps to The Merchant of Venice. Thousands of productions have played with setting and character to try to find some way to make the play less cringe-worthy, with limited success.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season opener is one of those successes.
Although the idea of setting Taming in post-WWII New York’s Little Italy, with Kate as a returning WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilot), sounds intriguing, the execution has to be seen to understand just how perfect it is. Because director Christopher DuVal manages to turn one of Shakespeare’s most famous (and infamous) comedies into one of the twentieth century’s classic film genres: the screwball comedy.
The set kicks the show off before it begins with a marquee reading “Little Italy Welcomes You” above two old brownstones on a New York City side street. A sign cleverly places them at the totally real intersection of Padua Way, Lombardy St., Florence St., and Pisa Ave. At the end of the pre-show, a radio announces the end of the war, prompting a dance celebration. (Fortunately, this means that the incongruous and confusing Christopher Sly frame story is left on the cutting room floor.)
The show begins, as all Shakespeare and screwball comedies do, with an introduction to the obstacles to a happy ending: three different suitors wish to marry the beautiful Bianca (Rachel Turner). Unfortunately for everyone, her father, Baptista (Robert Sicular), refuses to marry her off until her older sister Kate (Shelly Gaza) finds a husband. This seems unlikely to happen, since Kate refuses to give up her independence in order to submit to a husband. So the suitors conspire to find a man to marry her who’s only interested in money.
The costumes expand on the setting and characters brilliantly, telegraphing personality and status before the actors even speak their first lines. Baptista, Gremio (Sam Sandoe, hobbling across the stage with a walker), and Hortensio (Casey Andree) are in fedoras and pinstriped suits, immediately conjuring references to The Godfather (though here with more period accurate costumes). Lucentio (Christopher Joel Onken) and his servant, Tranio (Tony Ryan) are a Navy officer and sailor, respectively, showing the audience their relationship as well as Lucentio’s naivete and good, clean upbringing. By contrast, Petruchio (the fantastic Scott Coopwood) and his servant, Grumio (Matthew Schneck) enter clad in Army browns and greens, Petruchio’s bomber jacket and hat at once showing both his experience and cynicism. The flaky Bianca’s brightly-colored and fashionably feminine dresses immediately conflict with the serious pencil skirts and pants worn by Kate, who sadly only wears her full WASP uniform in the short opening scene. Petruchio’s beautifully atrocious wedding outfit is a bright purple (zebra-print-lined) zoot suit with matching feathered hat, under leopard-print chaps. The only miss is Kate’s jumpsuit, the cut of which evokes not Lauren Bacall or even Rosie the Riveter, but Shirley Temple in her overalls — not the ideal image for Kate and Petruchio’s “With my tongue in your tail” scene.
Though there are still a few cringe-worthy misogynistic moments (namely the forced kiss which Kate at first fights and then melts into), the cast sells the post-war, thank-god-we’re-alive, let’s-settle-down-and-have-dozens-of-children atmosphere. Onken sells Lucentio’s puppy love, and his glasses as Cambio the tutor transform him into an adorable mash-up of Harry Potter and Clark Kent. Newcomer Tony Ryan’s Tranio is perfectly over-the-top as a servant acting as he imagines a rich, arrogant suitor should. Casey Andree manages to make the audience feel for poor Hortensio, though he doesn’t end up as badly as the text implies; Anne Sandoe’s reading of one of the Widow’s lines made this feminist reviewer want to stand up and cheer. And, in easily the laugh-out-loud funniest moment in the entire show, Grumio brandishes knitting needles against a yardstick-wielding tailor in an inspired, Errol Flynn-esque “swordfight,” complete with apropos movie soundtrack.
Scott Coopwood is so perfectly cast as Petruchio, it’s as if he was born to play the role. The suave, arrogant gold-digger is a charming combination of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Cary Grant, and by the end of his opening lines, he’s flirted with at least five women in the audience. His introductory misunderstanding with Schneck’s Brooklyn-accented Grumio can’t help but conjure memories of classic Abbott and Costello (with a little Three Stooges mixed in); their interactions throughout the play are riveting, and bode well for their respective roles as Brutus and Cassius in CSF’s upcoming Julius Caesar.
Coopwood’s chemistry and banter with Shelly Gaza’s Kate evoke Grant and Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Although Petruchio is only in it for the money and Kate is more than a little reluctant, it’s clear from the first time they lay eyes on each other that there’s an attraction. Petruchio likes Kate’s stubbornness, while Kate hears in his alternately smug and complimentary banter a tenderness no one has ever shown her before. Coopwood actually manages to make Petruchio at least somewhat sympathetic — he privately refuses to eat as he deprives Kate, and his “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak; ‘tis charity to show,” is a desperate plea for some other way.
Gaza is good, although better in the latter half than the former; the intensity of her tantrums undercuts her ostensible seriousness and maturity as a WASP, even if Turner’s Bianca is a bratty younger sister who melodramatically fake-cries to their father. While Gaza doesn’t quite sell Kate’s change, it does ring less of being beaten into submission and more like a resigned decision to choose her battles when it comes to, say, Petruchio’s odd penchant for insisting the sun is the moon and vice versa; in fact, by the end of the scene she’s clearly enjoying trolling travelers along with Petruchio. She’s at her best, however, during Kate’s infamous speech at the end — by putting stress on the word “partner” (which seems to be a minor textual change from “husband”) and obedience to his “honest will,” Gaza miraculously makes the speech seem less a lesson for wives and more a warning to Petruchio that the relationship is a two-way street. When she extends her hand to him rather than placing it below his foot, he takes it proudly, the two of them a team against the world.
While the production doesn’t quite manage to expunge all the misogyny — as delightful as they are, those 1940s screwball comedies are still sexist — CSF’s The Taming of the Shrew: The Padua Story gets close. It ends with a highly entertaining swing dance curtain call, which feels appropriate. To celebrate its 60th season, CSF decided to stage the same plays as it did in its first. The fact that Taming is set in an era close to the one in which CSF began is probably a coincidence, but it highlights the reason for the festival’s existence: to bring Shakespeare to the masses in a fun and accessible way. In that sense, this production is perfect.