Scholars don’t usually consider The Taming of the Shrew a problem play, but it is definitely a problem. A problem, that is, for those producing the controversially misogynistic script. Kate’s last monologue, demanding that women blindly serve their husbands, proves to be a cipher for 21st Century directors. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre charged British director Josie Rourke with this task. In a scheme to bring the play’s infamous controversy into the production, Rourke brought in playwright Neil LaBute to write up a framing device revealing a fictional rehearsal process. Although Rourke and LaBute’s version serves up the issues of producing Shrew in 2010, the duo fails to propose any real solutions.
The audience enters the space to find stagehands vacuuming and fixing wayward lights. The Director (the very talented Mary Beth Fisher) calls out the actors and gives them the agenda for the day: tech rehearsal, the first one with codpieces. We are introduced to the frame’s main conflict: the Director’s tumultuous romance with the actress playing Kate (Bianca Amato). Fisher’s Director wants monogamy, but Amato takes issue with all of this pesky commitment. She also harbors suspicions that the Director cast her as Kate in some sort of grab for power. The “tech run” starts, tensions run high, and the actors go to lunch grumbling. After intermission, we move forward a few days. Fisher pops out and gives an impromptu speech to the “invited audience” (i.e. us, the paying audience), and the play continues with only one, albeit critical, hitch towards the end.
It’s nice that the production doesn’t flat-out excuse Shakespeare for penning the play, which is often the case. No one here has the illusion that Shakespeare was somehow subverting common Elizabethan ideas of gender, marriage, and a woman’s place in society (which would require a wildly liberal definition of “subverting”). Rourke takes the play more or less at face value—a good choice. Instead of infiltrating Shrew’s plot, LaBute provides us with a lens through which to view the piece.
The idea of framing the play goes back to the original author, who wrote Kate and Petruchio’s story as a tale told to a drunkard—a plot point usually cut in production. With his additional scenes, LaBute participates in a long tradition (Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate also comes to mind), but his frame doesn’t really illuminate anything new. By adding to the play, LaBute’s prose is also forcibly compared to Shakespeare’s, which is slippery territory for any writer. Although the frame lets the audience know that the production is aware of Shrew’s sexist trickery, it doesn’t make the play more palatable. LaBute and Rourke’s Shrew remains untamed.
LaBute’s contributions aside, the actual play works very well. Amato’s Kate is richly layered and forces our attention whenever she is onstage. She finds a potent scene partner in Ian Bedford, whose Petruchio exudes machismo, yet he’s also able to tease out our support with his bizarre brand of charm. This partnership is supported by a raucous bunch of actors who have the humor nailed down. Stephen Ouimette (of ‘Slings and Arrows fame) as Grumio leads the pack in hilarity, but he has tough competition from Sean Fortunato’s Hortensio, Erik Hellman’s Lucentio, and Brian Sills’ Tranio. CST darling Larry Yando pulls off another excellent show as Baptista. The weakest link is definitely Katherine Cunningham’s Bianca, who comes off as cardboard compared to the other talents sharing the stage.
Concocted by LaBute, Kate’s ending moment is definitely a surprise. It’s a move that goes much farther than a knowing wink or suggestive nod to the audience, but I won’t reveal it here. I found myself wishing they played the monologue straight, however, because Bedford and Amato find an enticing rhythm in the last scene. They have a dynamic that illuminates the play more than LaBute’s words, and for a moment, they seem like scheming equals. For a moment, there is neither shrew nor shrew-tamer. If only Rourke would let that organic discovery play out.
As with her production of Twelfth Night last season, Rourke brought scenic/costume designer Lucy Osborne with her across the Atlantic. Her set is not nearly as experimental as Twelfth Night’s swimming pool, but it presents a gorgeous vision of Padua with several sets of multicolored shutters. Her costumes are bright and her codpieces large, fitting the flighty mood of Shakespeare’s text. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lights round out the design, which doesn’t impose or distract from the story being told. This is definitely an actor’s production, and the design elements compliment the acting prowess.
Shrew is a hard play to stage, and usually requires pained director’s notes defending the choice to add this tough Shakespeare show to the season. While she tries to use the play’s controversy to propel this production forward, Rourke discovers nothing new. Still, the actual Shakespeare is worth seeing, which makes me think CST should stick with Shakespeare alone.
The Taming of the Shrew runs April 7 – June 6, 2010 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611. Information can be found at http://www.chicagoshakes.com/.