How to stage Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to make it more palatable for present-day audiences? Start with inspiration from Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar who connected with one of the main themes of being an outsider. Add in songs from musician/composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). Then line up an all male cast including 30 Rock’s Maulik Pancholy to play the feisty shrew Katherina. The result is a highly enjoyable take on one of the Bard’s most controversial plays.
The fun begins even before entering the theater. Actors in costume are on the sidewalk and in the lobby greeting patrons, posing for photos, and answering questions about the play. (This mingling of the audience and cast continues during the half-hour intermission called an “intermezzo,” with refreshments served on stage, and at the end of the performance.) Piazza D’Amore, an artisan market, has been set up on the first and second floors of the theater, designed to look like the open-air markets of Padua, with handmade fashion goods and food items that might appeal to the contemporary consumer.
Peter Gadiot, center, as Petruchio, with the cast
The stage setting for the play is a glittering multi-level structure bathed in golden lights with colorful eye-catching curtains at the top. (Kudos to Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood and Lighting Designer Seth Reiser.) Ostensibly, this is the palace of the wealthy Padua merchant, Baptista (Bernard White), who has two daughters, Katherina (Pancholy), and Bianca (Oliver Thornton). Bianca, the more beautiful and feminine of the two, has numerous suitors, most notably Lucentio (Telly Leung). Yet Bianca can’t be married off until her older sister, the obstreperous Kate, lands a husband. So when the rogue, Petruchio (Peter Gadiot), appears, drawn in less by Kate than by the value of her dowry, the die is cast.
Maulik Pancholy as Katherina and Peter Gadiot as Petruchio
Baptista, who cares little for Kate’s happiness and safety (no helicopter parenting here), agrees to the match, even when Petruchio humiliates his future wife by showing up late for the ceremony dressed like an animal with antlers. In modern times, Kate would have taken a page from Julia Robert’s The Runaway Bride and fled. But this is the1500s, and Kate submits to the union and is whisked away, not in a luxurious carriage but in a rickety wooden wheelbarrow. It’s a harbinger of what is to follow. Petruchio, intent on “taming” Kate, resorts to sleep deprivation and starvation to break her will.
Peter Gadiot as Petruchio and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina
Even though Iskander has removed from this production some of the harsher language (haggard, for one), there’s no blunting the misogynistic themes throughout the play. George Bernard Shaw once said about The Taming of the Shrew: “No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed.” (Shaw vigorously protected the independence of Pygmalion’s heroine, Eliza, by not having the play end with her marrying Professor Higgins.) Referring to Kate’s final speech of submission, Iskander writes in the production’s program, “It seems monstrous to ask a woman to perform it in today’s world…” Does an all male cast make that speech and other slights within the play less offensive? Perhaps on some level. What does help is placing the play in historical context, understanding the considerable obstacles women once faced.
Oliver Thornton as Bianca and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina
As Baptista’s two daughters, Kate and Bianca are polar opposites, the contrast played up visually by the characters’ wigs and costumes. Thornton’s Bianca sports long blonde tresses and wears pink gowns embellished with feathers and sparkles. Pancholy’s Kate has her dark hair in a blunt cut and wears muted, manish clothing. But it’s the way these two actors carry themselves and express their emotions with hand gestures and body language that conveys how they regard their gender and sexuality. Bianca is flirtatious, enjoying all the attention she receives from her male suitors, while Kate refuses to entertain their presence, often hurling insults. Pancholy’s performance is brilliant because it is so disturbing. It’s disconcerting to watch Kate transform from the strong-willed fighter she once was into a docile woman who helps Petruchio win a bet when she’s the only wife who comes when he calls.
Comic relief is provided by André De Shields as Gremio, an older suitor seeking Bianca’s hand. (Although why he appears as a Cardinal is a mystery.) He dances then suddenly passes away in a death scene that he plays for laughs. (De Shields was also much sought after for photos in the lobby.) As another Bianca suitor, Lucentio (Leung), along with his tutor, Tranio (Matthew Russell), also create lighter moments.
The Taming of the Shrew will always have its detractors. Yet Shakespeare Theatre’s timing in producing the play is perfect. While women continue to push for equality in the workplace, we will see a woman run for the highest office in our country. And the transgender movement is challenging how we think about what separates men and women. It’s hard not to think about those facts while being entertained by this very lively production.
Photos by Scott Schuman
The Taming of the Shrew
610 F Street NW