“To kill a wife with kindness.” Petruchio
At a pivotal moment in the second half of Folger Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew I did something I have never done in a play before; I whispered to my plus one, “I (expletive deleted) hate this.”
This graphic and visceral reaction was not an aspersion on the cast. From Kate Eastwood Norris’s fiery performance as Katherine to Danny Scheie’s delightfully effete Grumio, to Dave Gamble’s regal Vincentio, to Holly Twyford’s drag performance as Tranio, the acting was uniformly excellent. Tony Ciskek’s Deadwood inspired set was perfect down to the use of hides, the lanterns, and the chandelier furnished with antlers and Helen Huang’s costumes were lovely. Cliff Eberhardt’s musical performance as the Blind Balladeer stole the whole production and was absolutely perfect. No there was nothing in the production values to complain about and indeed much to praise. The problem is with the play itself and director Aaron Posner’s take on it.
I wasn’t always this harsh in my opinion of The Taming of the Shrew. In my younger years I had a hearty laugh at various stage productions, but as time passes, and I’ve had to endure more and more so called “romantic comedies” based on the premise of the Conquering Hero humiliating a strong minded independent woman into devotion to him, my patience has gotten thinner. Now Shakespeare’s language still remains far more eloquent and amusing than say, The Ugly Truth, but the misogyny still comes through clearer than ever with Petruchio essentially strong arming an unwilling woman to the altar, essentially removing her from her household by force, then using hunger, sleep deprivation, and other classic brainwashing methods to win her obedience. Along the way he roundly abuses and terrorizes his servants and some poor tradesmen as part of his campaign. Ha Ha! Hilarious!
All this is annoying and offensive enough but Director Posner’s attempts to somehow find a great love story in it all makes it somehow much worse. Ok Petruchio has behaved like an absolute psycho to Katherine; but look he presents her with a beautiful dress and boots. Isn’t that sweet?!? Baptista (Sarah Marshall) who is in the original play a patriarch is here turned into Katherine and Bianca’s mother and I don’t think that choice was made simply because of Sarah Marshall’s considerable talent but was an attempt on Posner’s part to soften the harsh imagery of the father foisting off a difficult daughter on the first man who would take her for her huge dowry. It’s as if Posner wants us to think, “Oh see, Baptista’s such a strong woman and so is Tranio, so we couldn’t possibly be endorsing any misogynistic messages here!” Sorry but when you have a man order his wife to destroy her hat in front of company and give a long lecture on wifely submission it’s pretty much an endorsement of the patriarchy no matter how you try to spin it.
In fairness to Posner of course, The Taming of the Shrew is a problem play and making it work would either require that you pretty much re-write the whole thing from scratch, as was done in the Heath Ledger teen classic movie 10 Things I Hate About You, or you can take the approach the recent movie version of The Merchant of Venice starring Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino did and make the blatant prejudice the point of the production. In that version Shylock becomes the main tragic figure and the film concentrates on his downfall while painting the so-called “heroes” of the story as vicious hypocritical anti-Semites.
A version of The Taming of the Shrew that acknowledged how disturbing the disturbing elements were might very well be an interesting if unsettling production. Unfortunately Aaron Posner’s commitment to creating a “comical love story” precludes any deeper analysis. You might be able to find it all funny, as long as you’re careful not to think.
Photos, from top:
1. Kate Eastwood Norris as Katherine and Cody Nickell, photo by Jeff Malet
2. (L-R) Katherine (Kate Eastwood Norris) confronts Petruchio (Cody Nickell), photo by Carol Pratt
3. (L-R) Danny Scheie, Cody Nickell, and Kate Eastwood Norris, photo by Jeff Malet
4. Bianca (Sarah Mollo-Christensen) with suitors Hortensio (Marcus Kyd, foreground) and Lucentio (Thomas Keegan, in window), photo by Jeff Malet
5. (L-R) Baptista (Sarah Marshall) agrees to give Petruchio (Cody Nickell) her eldest daughter’s hand in marriage, photo by Carol Pratt
6. Cliff Eberhardt as The Blind Balladeer, photo by Jeff Malet
The Taming of the Shrew
The Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol Street, SE
202-544-7077 (Box Office)