The Taming of the Shrew
At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—We likely will never see a production in our lifetime of “The Taming of the Shrew” as Shakespeare wrote it. Shakespeare composed the play more than 400 years ago as a farce and doubtless didn’t concern himself with the niceties of political correctness. But the play’s treatment of a willful young woman brutalized into submission by her new husband would be toxic for today’s audiences.
Modern theaters still occasionally revive “The Taming of the Shrew” but the productions usually spin the inflammatory sexist storyline to avoid offending contemporary sensibilities. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater revival doesn’t shy away from the hard core of the play, but it’s unlikely that the most ardent feminists in the audience will be riled by the CST results.
Artist director Barbara Gaines has elected to cast “Shrew” entirely with female actors (there are only three female characters in the play against 13 males). Gaines also sets the action in Chicago in 1919 instead of Padua, Italy, in the late 16th century. The production adds new text to the script and most significantly weaves in the fight for women’s suffrage in America as a subplot. The ensemble also breaks out in choral singing from time to time.
The adaptation calls for each performer to switch between impersonating members of a Chicago women’s club in 1919 rehearsing its own version of “Shrew” and characters in the original play. It’s the kind of back and forth action that worked so well for the musical “Kiss Me, Kate” and the shift is smooth and un self-conscious at the CST. The 13 women in the ensemble perform comfortably in both the Elizabethan and 20th century worlds.
The production notably Heidi Kettenring, E. Faye Butler, Rita Rehn, and Hollis Resnik. Ron West’s textual insertions toss off anachronistic references to modern Chicago with pointed wit. It isn’t too much to report that West’s dialogue occasionally was funnier than Shakespeare’s.
“The Taming of the Shrew” is a very early Shakespeare play but the Bard already knew how to make audiences laugh, not yet by the superb poetry of later comedies but with knockabout farce. It doesn’t take long for a viewer to adjust to the gender switches on the CST stage, which Gaines directs with deft comic skill, avoiding any campiness or whiffs of a drag show (however, there are too many times when the minor clownish characters go over the top with low comedy mugging).
The core of the play is the fierce confrontational relationship between the tempestuous Katherine (Alexandra Henrikson) and her wooer, the self-confident adventurer Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry). The production presents Petruchio’s mental and physical cruelty toward the initially resistant and finally compliant Katherine with no apologies. But some of the intensity between the two is lost because the viewer is aware of the common gender of the two characters. Lucas-Perry’s performance strives for the macho, but the smug sense of male superiority doesn’t sufficiently come through.
The clubwomen of 1919 are portrayed as lightweights, bickering and attitudinizing and generally churning up giggles for the audience. The ladies sometimes seemed more interested in securing plum roles in their club’s revival of “Shrew” and winning a trivial competition with another Chicago women’s club for the honor of being the first to stage their own “Taming of the Shrew” production. But at heart nearly all are committed suffragettes anxiously following the progress in the United States Senate of a constitutional amendment that could give American women the right to vote.
The production achieves its dramatic peak in the last minutes of the play, after the clubwomen’s “Shrew” rehearsal ends. That’s when the ladies learn that the Senate has approved the constitutional amendment. The elation and feeling of triumph and pride that sweeps among the women is played straight and raises the emotional temperature of the play to new, and welcome, heights.
The action takes place in a plush mansion, richly designed by Kevin Depinet. Thomas Hase’s lighting design alternates between bathing the stage in soft beige hues during the “Taming of the Shrew” portions and bright white lights during the 1919 scenes. Susan Mickey’s costumes start out as typical fashions for middle class women of 1919 and with the quick removal of a skirt the outfits convert to faux Elizabethan garb.
The production runs almost three hours and too much of the stage action is occupied by silly mistaken and confused identities, with the spectators trying to sort out a clutter of characters named Tranio, Grumio, Gremio, Hortencio, Vincentio, and so on. But that’s more on Shakespeare than the CST. The CST casting raises the flag of diversity with four African Americans in the ensemble, notably the black Petruchio and a black Bianca (Olivia Washington), Katherine’s spoiled sister.
Even though women’s suffrage is treated primarily in comic strokes, its inclusion in “Shrew” does reminds us that less than 100 years ago women could not vote in the United States. The club women in the play may draw some condescending smiles from the audience, but back in 1919 they were enduring harassment and ridicule on the front lines of one of the great social revolutions in American history.
The Shakespeare play will always be a problem, with theater companies normally forced to choose between distorting the original to ease the female abuse material or accepting the Shakespeare original and let the audience like it or lump it. The CST revival gives satisfaction from an approach that is part Barbara Gaines and part William Shakespeare. It’s a combination that has worked gloriously in past CST offerings and holds up well enough now to provide spectators with a fun evening seasoned with a modest helping of historical instruction.
“The Taming of the Shrew” runs through November 12 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $48 to $88. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
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