What with Hilary Clinton hopefully on her way to The White House and a resurgence of women’s groups focused on everything from reproductive rights to career opportunities, The Public Theater apparently thinks mounting an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew is timely quid pro quo. (All productions in Shakespeare’s time were acted exclusively by men.) Even the show’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, hails from the distaff side.
Lloyd, alas, is the biggest part of the problem here. Seemingly in an effort to emulate Alex Timber’s immensely more successful free-for-all musical take on Love’s Labour’s Lost, we have a concept gone off the rails with no cohesive point of view. Irreverence can be fun, but this…!?
Donna Lynn Champlin, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Crush Jumbo
In brief, Petruchio (Janet McTeer) arrives from Verona “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” When told the likeliest candidate is a shrew named Katherina/Kate (Cush Jumbo), he resolves to acquire the lady by denying her faults. Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) has a slew of suitors. Predominant among these are locals Gemio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Stacey Sargeant), and the newly arrived Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore).
The girls’ father, Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), will not allow Bianca’s marriage before Kate is suitably paired off. He will, however, permit tutors access to his daughters. Lucentio switches places with his servant Tranio (Adrienne C. Moore) and is presented to papa as a teacher of literature. In a really funny scene, he declares his identity and love between passages of Gone With the Wind. Bianca responds “I know you not. I trust you not. (reading) I’ll never be hungry again!” She’s conveniently if irrationally dressed like Scarlett O’Hara.
Not to be outdone, Hortensio masquerades as a music instructor. Lucentio wins. Tranio secures her hand for his master (still disguised as him) by promising a large dowry. After a mix-up involving Lucentio’s faux and actual father, servant and master switch back.
Janet McTeer and Crush Jumbo
Drunk (there’s a bottle in his paper bag) and under dressed in this version, Petruchio weds Kate and drags her off in his hysterical, full sized RV, painted with pin-ups. (Kudos to Mark Thompson.) He deprives his bride of food and sleep at a trailer camp – killing her with ersatz kindness – until starving and exhausted, she gives in to his every whim. Upon returning home for Bianca’s wedding, he bets on and proves the shrew’s change. Kate’s iconic speech about wifely duties/subservience is a surprise to everyone.
A pithy role long relished by formidable actresses, Kate must be an equal to Petruchio for the play to work. She must match him in quickness of wit, intelligence, and stubborn pride – in other words, a prize. The best performances show slow recognition that this strong, attractive man is, in fact, worth having; that it’s her decision to submit, that rather than diminish Kate, it will eventually give her leverage. Petruchio meanwhile grows to admire what he now ostensibly owns and will, it’s implied, relinquish his outrageous test demands. The “doormat” speech is delivered with an arched eyebrow by a woman who has found her water level .
Crush Jumbo, Janet McTeer
Beginning and ending with a beauty pageant, the British Lloyd acknowledges that women were judged by beauty and financial gain. That she paints both female protagonists as unworthy of further examination is as anti-feminist as it gets.
In this production, the heroine is a tantrum-throwing, childish brat (and not believable as that, either). As conceived one presumes by Lloyd and played by an ill-suited Cush Jumbo, her only merit is a dowry. The relationship is meaningless. Kate is a Stepford Wife. Lest we leave with that impression, she has an aria da capo fit of screaming rebellion at the end and is dispensed in a manner that makes no sense. What ?!
Bianca’s air-headed, blonde beauty queen persona is embodied rather well by Gayle Rankin with comedic flair, despite directed shouting. It would work better had she a significant Kate to play her opposite.
Latanya Richardson Jackson, Janet McTeer
Also good are Stacey Sargeant as Hortensio (replete with accordion and some well finessed timing) and Adrienne C. Moore as a genial Tranio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Baptista lacks paternal and class authority.
A call-out should be made to Judy Gold (Gremio) who rescued a stall due to the malfunctioning RV, with ad-libbed comedy, some of which was lighthearted vaudeville, some of which was unnecessarily vulgar.
The best reason to sit through this mishmash is far and away Janet McTeer (Petruchio). This mercurial actress, soon to appear on Broadway in Les Liasons Dangereuses, imbues her swaggering, masculine role with so much visual testosterone, reality feels suspended. She moves, gestures, smokes, drinks and deeply laughs as would the cocky rogue. Petruchio manhandles Kate with confident sovereignty and no regard for the weakness of her sex. Commands are spit, aftermath watchful. McTeer, calculates, manipulates, revels, and gloats in perfect tenor. A masterful turn.
Rose Gilmore, Gayle Rankin
Mark Thompson’s evocative tent and wagon Set seems irrelevant to a piece with not a moment of circus parody or performance. His 1950’s Costumes fair better with the help of Leah J. Loukas’s unflattering (the style then) Hair and Wig Design. The production also, however, utilizes western gear, sometimes adding cowboy hats to suits from another geography. Petruchio resembles a Texas Hell’s Angel. Kate looks like a character from Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park). Nor are the rich dressed any differently than their servants. At least give us that disparity within a chosen genre.
Live music between scenes consists of abrasive, electronic, bass sound with a tad of rhythm and next to no melody. (Sam Davis) Excerpted disco tunes and middle-of-the-road pop are often humorously inserted but rarely from the 1950s and never country/western. Disconnect is constant. (A company dance finale -Broadway meets disco – is sheer copycat.)
The company is hit or miss with language that should be crisp and intelligible whatever its proffered context. While I have no problem when two (black) servants speak with ghetto street inflection, general enunciation lacks the precision necessary to make a conversational approach accessible and entertaining. Most of these actresses seem untrained in Shakespeare. The further afield a production is taken, the more important its dialogue.
As always, the outdoor theater itself is a unique experience. Besides helicopters who frustratingly never seem rerouted on performance nights, we’re visited by an enormous raccoon and four perfectly arrayed geese. The weather is glorious.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Janet McTeer
The Public Theater presents Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
The Delacorte Theater
Through June 26, 2016
Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida – July 19-August 14, 2016