Scholars, theatergoers and activists have been debating The Taming of the Shrew for about four centuries. Just what was Shakespeare, with his tale of the warring lovers Katherina and Petruchio, saying about the battle of the sexes? And how can that tale, with its dated (and to many, insulting) attitudes, be made palatable to a modern audience?
Director Matt Pfeiffer’s new production at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival succeeds largely by shunting much of the controversy aside and reminding us of something about The Taming of the Shrew that it’s easy to forget: it’s a comedy. It’s supposed to make us laugh. And Pfeiffer’s raucous production delivers those laughs, over and over again.
There’s a pleasantly off-the-cuff feel to this Taming of the Shrew, accentuated by David P. Gordon’s unvarnished set and Olivera Gajic’s costumes, which blend 16th century formality and excess with 21st century casual chic. But don’t be fooled by the lack of affectation: this is a top-notch Shakespearean ensemble, exploring some fertile characters in new and enlightening ways.
For starters, there’s Ian Merrill Peakes’ performance as Petruchio. He swaggers his way onto the stage wearing a red leather jacket and sunglasses, virtually dripping with well-earned cockiness. But when he first sees Eleanor Handley’s Kate – wearing a black corset over a white t-shirt and blue jeans – he loses his composure for a moment. Tough, earthy and alluring, with a fierce gaze and an outthrust jaw, she can probably make any man weak just by looking at him – and if that doesn’t work, she’ll probably kick him until he collapses. But once Petruchio regains his bearings, the two of them are off on a series of verbal and physical jousts that give the show a huge blast of energy. (Dale Anthony Girard did the intricate fight choreography.)
Much of the time in this Taming of the Shrew is given over to the supporting players, many of whom are suitors vying for the hand of Kate’s sister Bianca (a lively Ally Borgstrom). These suitors – Lucentio (Brandon J. Pierce), Tranio (Dan Hodge), Gremio (Carl N. Wallnau) and Hortensio (Alex J. Bechtel) – provide a lot of welcome comic relief.
The same is true for Petruchio’s servants Grumio (an indefatigable Eric Hissom), who does pratfalls and gets into mock arguments with audience members (summoning up memories of how actors in Shakespeare’s day would play to the groundlings). Grumio even cracks a joke about a certain Broadway mega-hit, which brings down the house.
That line is typical of the new jokes and comedy routines that have been added. So much has been added, in fact, that the show sometimes gets caught up in its own cuteness. But if this Taming of the Shrew doesn’t always stick to the letter of Shakespeare’s text, it’s certainly true to its spirit.
In the middle of this madness, observing it all with a wry and sometimes confused expression, is the merchant Baptista – here changed from Kate’s father to her mother, and played with dignified restraint by Linda Thorson. She loses her composure only once – and it’s in a quite funny way.
In addition to playing Hortensio, Bechtel also serves as the show’s musical director, and there are songs throughout the show with actors performing vigorously on piano, guitar, ukulele, and other instruments. Some of these musical interludes get too precious – one of Bianca’s suitors sings a song rhyming her name with “Sri Lanka” – but generally these are welcome additions to the production.
But the heart of any Taming of the Shrew is the relationship between Kate and Petruchio. Handley and Peakes give as good as they get, and it’s a lot of fun seeing these two face off against each other. But how do they fare in the play’s problematic final scene – the one where Kate seems to capitulate to her husband, giving a speech about what “a woman oweth to her husband”? It’s a speech about putting a woman in her place, and for many, no amount of comedy will ever put that right.
Handley delivers that speech straight, seeming to take its every word seriously. But Peakes’ reaction to it – and a well-calculated callback to an earlier bit of fight choreography – gives the scene an unexpected, and rewarding, dimension. We may not fully understand how Kate meant it, but it’s clear that Kate and Petruchio understand each other. And that makes for a satisfying ending to a surprisingly crowd-pleasing version of The Taming of the Shrew.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
The Taming of the Shrew plays through Sunday, August 7, 2016, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, performing at the Labuda Center’s Main Stage – 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, PA, on the Campus of DeSales University. For tickets, call (610) 282-WILL, or purchase them online.