Much of the comedy in The Taming of the Shrew arises from farcical transformation. Lucentio changes places with his servant Tranio; both suitors to the fair Bianca disguise themselves as tutors; an aged traveler is intimidated into playing the part of the wealthy old Vincentio, Lucentio's father. And of course, the titular shrew of the piece, "Kate the curs't," is a woman seeking to assert her claim to autonomy, choice and respect, as if she had all the rights of a man.
The Elizabethans had no problem with this. In the post-show discussion on opening night of this all-women staged reading by Austin Shakespeare, Dr. Emily Richmond-Garza, head of the Comparative Literature department at the University of Texas, reminded actors and audience that in the theatre of Shakespeare's time there were two surefire crowd-pleasing delights: fights and wife-beatings.
Our own time finds it difficult to swallow the basic premise of The Taming of the Shrew, which includes Petruchio's macho conquering, abasement and subjugation of Kate. Earnest apologia or exculpations appear in the director's notes for some productions that emphasize Kate's intelligence and wiliness, providing interpretations and stage business indicating that rather than capitulating to Petruchio, she has in fact outsmarted him and everyone else.
The image of a brutish, lowering Petruchio like that played by Richard Burton in Zeffirelli’s Shrew haunts us still. Granted, Burton was mocking himself as much as anyone else, but Austin Shakespeare artistic director Ann Ciccolella read for us—twice—the ad slogan for Zeffirelli's 1967 screenplay: "A romantic film amorously devoted to every man who ever gave the back of his hand to his beloved...and to every woman who deserved it!”
Inventive and often inspired, Ann Ciccolella confronts the problem of this play head on. Under her direction, the company's spring fundraiser includes three nights of staged readings of Shrew at the riverside Globe-replica Curtain Theatre, with a superfine assortment of Austin's most accomplished women actors. Ciccolella trimmed the text and speeds the action to deliver the play in less than two hours, even with a 15-minute intermission. The result is a lark in the private park at Richard Garriott's estate.
The fun is threefold. First is Shakespeare's foolery of plot, disguise and farce, accessible even in this speed-reading version since most of us know the text so well. Second is the happily cornball interpretation, both with Ciccolella's peppy direction and with the actors' eager transformation of a "rehearsal clothing" dictum by donning clownish clothes, hats and fantastical facial hair. And third is the spark of recognizing in the swaggering, doddling or rollicking male characters some of the women who have captivated us onstage by their otherwise feminine aspects.
Gwen Kelso plays the put-upon Katerina with sweet and big pouty eyes, demonstrating her comic scope. Kelso, from an Austin theatre family, was a merrily mischievous Rosalind last year in Scottish Rite Theatre's As You Like It, and before that, Kelso played a vibrant Juliet for Austin Shakespeare’s production in Zilker Park.
Opposite her is Jill K. Swanson, a Petruchio with the serene confidence of a college varsity athlete, dressed first in a handsome gray suit and later happily sloppy in slacks, sweatshirt and reversed baseball cap. Swanson is a sort of enthusiast-in-residence at the company, running a weekly two-hour Sunday afternoon reading of Shakespeare. She co-edited collections of Shakespeare monologues, recently directed a lively compilation of “husbands and wives” scenes from Shakespeare, and she typically appears in supporting roles (for example, as Phebe the shepherdess in As You Like It and as the anti-Malvolian serving girl Maria in Twelfth Night).
This staged reading of Shrew is a triumphant manumission for Swanson. Her Petruchio is wit and fire, encumbered with little earth. Seeing her smile and stride and chide is a pleasure, for it encourages us to believe that Petruchio is the only clear-eyed male onstage. With that vivacity, we are quickly won to the notion that the initially mistrustful Kate is attracted to him. This Petruchio tempts and tricks Kate, but never lays a violent hand upon her.
It would be instructive to tally the long list of Austin theatre awards and nominations garnered by this 13-woman cast. Among the leaders is Babs George as Baptista Minola, covered up here by a black cowboy hat and bristly mustache, but more often seen in roles of delicacy and grace. Jenny Larson, artistic director of the Salvage Vanguard Theatre, is a favorite, with her energy, exasperation and mugging as the frustrated suitor Hortensio. The tidy and diminutive redhead Bernadette Nason, actress-storyteller associated with Austin Playhouse, steals moments of the show with her physical clowning in several secondary roles. Director/actress Karen Jambon, associated with half a dozen theatre groups, here plays Petruchio's servant, Grumio, with jumpin' jollity and foolishness throughout.
Ciccolella blocks this thought experiment meticulously. Rehearsals were necessarily limited and included a final run-through audible just twenty minutes before opening. The women make up in spirit and glee the imperfections inherent to carrying the script around. One quickly gets used to the style, but the evening's experience makes one yearn a bit for a full production, especially one that could pull on such resources of talent.
An admonition: dress warmly! The temperature on opening night fell gradually, but one still needs a warm coat or sweater by the time the actors gather onstage with Ciccolella for the traditional talkback with the audience.
The conversation continues in Austin. The newly-established Hidden Room Theatre presents a Shakespeare "original practices" version of The Taming of the Shrew, featuring an all-male cast and running from April 30 to May 23, 2010 at an as yet undisclosed location. Director Beth Burns, locally acclaimed for the Scottish Rite's Twelfth Night last summer, tweeted just this week, "Have come to the firm conclusion that despite popular opinion, Taming of the Shrew is not sexist, and is pro-gender equality. Discuss."
Let that constitute the Reproof Valiant!
The Taming of the Shrew staged reading runs March 25-27, 2010 at the Curtain Theatre, 7400 Coldwater Canyon, Austin, Texas 78730. Information can be found at http://www.austinshakespeare.org/drupal/.