The Taming of the Shrew
At Bard on the Beach until September 22
Soggy weather couldn’t dampen the spirits of the cast or the audience on the opening night of The Taming of the Shrew directed by Meg Roe. Her production is bursting with inventive, amusing business. She introduces a wonderful running gag with a widow (sprightly Susan Coodin) that sets up marriage—for some—as an on again, off again affair that’s not to be taken too seriously.
And marriage, as in most comedies, is the goal in Taming. According to their father’s dictates, pretty, giddy Bianca (Dawn Petten) cannot marry until her older, shrewish sister Kate (Lois Anderson) is married off. Kate is a beauty but she’s a wildcat; she comes, however, with a handsome dowry.
New-in-town Petruchio (John Murphy) wants “to wife wealthily” and is cocksure he can tame the so-called “irksome, brawling scold.” Kate’s father Baptista (wonderful Bernard Cuffling) gratefully, wearily gives Petruchio the go-ahead.
We look forward to that first meeting with mounting anticipation and Roe, Anderson and Murphy do not disappoint: in one impossibly long gaze, Petruchio is obviously smitten. Thoughts of the dowry are momentarily forgotten and Kate is the prize he seeks, not her money. Kate, on her part, is curious, challenged and aroused.
The gender politics are awful in this play, and the only way to approach it is to acknowledge the culture of the Elizabethan period and to push on which is what Roe chooses to do. Petruchio tames Kate by depriving her of food and sleep and then moves on to scuttle her sense of reality. There’s no way around it—although I have seen another production in which Kate pushed fully clothed Petruchio into a pool at curtain.
All of Kate’s trials would be unbearable to watch but Anderson and Murphy make us believe these are two outsiders who finally meet their soulmates. The actors, too, are well matched. Anderson’s Kate is bad-tempered because she feels unloved by her father; Murphy’s swaggering Petruchio is domineering but with just enough vulnerability to make him attractive. There’s sexual excitement between them.
Colleen Wheeler (as Baptista’s dour servant Biondella) proves once again there are no small roles. In a skirmish with Vincentio (Duncan Fraser) on opening night, she threw herself so rigorously into the role that she knocked Fraser’s wig off before, as grim-faced as the grim reaper, she rang her little bell.
Petten is not the usual sweet and innocent Bianca, her father’s darling. This Bianca is silly, showing off her stockinged legs and her ribboned shoes at every opportunity. And drunk, she’s downright blowsy, illustrating—as if we haven’t noticed—that the better catch is and always has been clever Kate.
Anton Lipovetsky, a recent Studio 58 grad, makes a grand Bard debut as foppish, sweet-faced Lucentio, one of Bianca’s suitors that include old Gremio (Shawn Macdonald) and Hortensio (Kevin Kruchkywich). And Kayvon Kelly not only is a lively servant to Petruchio, but he sings a lovely little ditty.
Mara Gottler again dazzles us with her Regency period gowns and a gorgeous but ridiculous get-up that’s topped off with a huge plumed hat on Petruchio’s tailor (Ian Butcher). Kevin McAllister’s set also offers some creative surprises: instead of a real chandelier, one painted on canvas is lowered and raised like a flag when required. Similarly, a canvas tree descends from the flies and spreads its roots across the stage.
A difficult play to pull off because it’s so politically incorrect, Roe through invention and a feather-light touch banishes the grey skies and takes us to fair Verona for an evening of fun and frolic.
And, lest we be deceived, Anderson’s wink at curtain reminds us that the marriage between Petruchio and Kate will not always be bliss. The taming of Petruchio is about to begin.