Actors’ Shakespeare Project opens its sixth season with a light, funny and modern production of The Taming of the Shrew, swelling with hoaxes and mockery. In this, one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, we witness a male world of competing and bidding for, winning and taming the perfect wife. The clashing chauvinism of the plot is diminished by the farcical treatment of many of the arrogant wife tamers. We enjoy a play within a play with many layers of assumed identities that lead to hilarious asides throughout, and a surprise ending in which the two most put upon characters outface the fakers.
The production opens with a practical joke played on the drunken rogue, Christopher Sly. Perpetrated by the staff at a speak-easy, Sly wakes from a stupor with an abundance of fake success: social, financial and marital. Convinced that he is a Lord, Sly is presented with a busboy dressed in drag for his wife, and a performance of players who happened to wander into the scene of his prank. ASP expands Sly’s role from the original script. Instead of an insipid, duped drunk who dozes off during the first Act, he is captivated by the performance, stealing lines from the actors and finally jumping into the action. Sly assumes the role of the witty and pretentious Petruchio and secures the prize most coveted by the men in this play—a loving and obedient wife.
Director Melia Bensussen ingeniously maneuvers around the disappearance of Sly after Act I. The beggar who awakes to find himself suddenly surrounded by riches demands some sort of resolution, whether a discovered respectability for this rogue or a return to his former misfortunes. Shakespeare has left us without resolution, and the intriguing induction to the play feels abruptly truncated. By incorporating Sly into the performance, ASP gives the audience answers while remaining true to the text. This also allows Benjamin Evett, who takes the role of Sly in this production, to live up to his character’s name. This device demands that the artifice of the play be constantly reinforced; the players, the busboy, the bartender and the proprietor are all acting. These double or triple parts accentuate the role of imitation and pretense in Shrew. By adding layers of fakery, the production allows for a new perspective on Kate’s final speech of submission and Christopher Sly’s wordless disappearance.
The actors flawlessly embrace their multiple roles and own the Shakespearean language as easily as their hilarious breaks into modern exclamations. They giggle gleefully at crude jokes and gesticulate with childish obscene gestures. Their delight is infectious and, paired with circus-style clowning, keeps the audience engaged and laughing. Michael Forden Walker plays many roles, but his most engaging and hilarious is Grumio, a Boston-style bro who serves as Pertuchio’s lackey. Together with Pertuchio, Walker parodies the overconfidence of men in this battle of the sexes by playing the most extreme specimen of the gender. Adorned with tinsel and bling, he eggs others on and delivers his aggressive lines in the drawl of a fraternity brother. This Grumio is always ready to fray and even has the Fonzie touch.
Benjamin Evett is a fantastic Petruchio, and offers a commanding belligerent madman to compete with Kate’s tantrums. He is startlingly overaggressive, often spitting his words with enthusiasm and shocking Kate into smiles. Thanks to the metatheatrical elements in this play, we can see more dimensions of Sarah Newhouse, who plays both Kate and the solitary woman in the acting troupe set upon bewildering Sly. Craig Mathers as Gremio and as the leader of the actors’ troupe antagonizes this nameless actress, leading an undercurrent of domination that permeates throughout the performance. Newhouse is almost struck by a number of men, and her isolation as the only woman is made very clear. From start to end, this unnamed female actor is abused and piqued by the men around her. Newhouse’s simmering rage in the induction shapes her portrayal of Kate. This show is very physical, and much of the comedy comes from Newhouse’s violent interpretation of a shrewish woman. Kate intimidates the men who surround her through wit, spite and physical violence. She forcefully rejects male suppression and offers wonderful role reversal in this comedy that focuses on the best manner of domesticating a “good” wife.
Ross Bennett Hurwitz as Bianca is the antithesis of Sarah Newhouse’s Kate, and this busboy turn “good” daughter inverts his part towards docility. Hurwitz finds self-assurance and spunk in drag—qualities that elude him while dressed like a man. One of the funniest scenes is Kate’s antagonizing of her meek sister Bianca, and we watch as Sarah Newhouse lifts Ross Bennett Hurwitz onto a hook to swing helplessly, squealing, hairy chest protruding from his corset while she berates him.
ASP seems to have sacrificed much of the validity of the Kate and Bianca’s interactions in Act 1 in favor of the comedy of Christopher Sly. Lucentio’s opening speeches are purposefully disjointed as the players assume dual roles, rushing across the stage and changing hats and falsetto voices to denote differences of character. Sly watches incredulously, finally placing the remainder of the acting audience on the stage to fill out the performance. The most hilarious parts of this production are the jokes at the company’s own expense. Each time the acting troupe is introduced, they parody themselves with a hilarious flourish of puffed out chests and overextended poses. The audience howls with laughter when the actors, whose roles are “bad actors”, trip and stumble their way through the start of the performance. However, our awareness of each actor as “actor” distracts. They are not allowed to be characters in their own right until the audience can depend on each actor to remain in character. The prominence of the artifice of the inner play distances the audience from the drama of the production. While hilarious, this performance does not seem real until the actors begin to perceive it as real themselves.
Like the physical comedy and drama that builds slowly from beginning to end, the costumes aren’t even costumes at the start of the play. During the induction, everyone wears jeans, jackets and sneakers, though the bar staff also don aprons. What appears at the start of the play to be a lazy lack of any costume design by co-designers Ashley Preston and Molly Trainer soon reveals itself to be another means of demonstrating the transformations occurring for everyone in this production. ASP cleverly presents the discovery of truths in the midst of fakery; realizations are made through the actors’ assumed roles and the slow transformation of the set and costumes mirrors this. You cannot trust anything to be what it seems. In fact, this production suggests just the opposite—that meekness, admiration and happiness is always hiding behind a contrary face, and in the end, manipulation of the truth may be the only way to facilitate true change.
The Taming of the Shrew runs October 14 – November 8 at The Garage, located at 38 JFK Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA 02138. More information can be found at http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/.