Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Shrew Tamer"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE SHREW TAMER"

original adaptation by Brooke Ciardelli
adapted from
“The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare
and
“The Tamer Tamed” by John Fletcher
directed by Brooke Ciardelli
fight direction by John Hayden
choreography by Brad Bass
original music by Paul Englishby

Petruchio … Jefferson Slinkard
Kate / Maria … Maren Perry
Bianca … Vivia Font
Baptista / Petronius … Thom Haneline
Grumio … Aaron Munoz
Hortensio … Michael Solomon
Livia / Nicholas / Townswoman … Summer Serafin
Lucentio … Karl Jacob
Curtis / Rowland / Dancer … Nicholas Urda
Tranio … David Fehr
Tailor / Priest Peter / Biondello / Philip / Dancer … Rowan Brooks
Country Wife / Doctor … Lena Kaminsky
Widow / City Wife / Haberdasher … Heidi Fagan

What will prove to be one of the most talked-about theatre events in New England this season is currently taking place in the Vermont town of White River Junction where Northern Stage is world-premiering Brooke Ciardelli’s THE SHREW TAMER, her pairing of William Shakespeare’s comedy THE TAMING OF THE SHREW with John Fletcher’s little-known sequel, THE TAMER TAMED. Shakespeare’s riotous battle of the sexes has always been a controversial favorite; when joined to Mr. Fletcher’s spin where Woman proves triumphant, Ms. Ciardelli’s play will provoke as well as entertain both sexes --- though not necessarily at the same time.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is the familiar tale of Petruchio, the fortune hunter who agrees to marry the sharp-tongued Katherine so that her father Baptista can then put her younger, more agreeable sister Bianca up on the marriage block. By means of verbal and physical knockabout, Petruchio turns Katherine into the model wife who closes the evening by admonishing other women for being so uppity towards their husbands. THE TAMER TAMED takes place twenty years later: Katherine is now dead (her death, unexplained) and Petruchio has just married the demure Maria who tames him, in turn, by denying him access to her bed and staying a few tricks ahead of Petrochio until, humbled, he accepts her as a partner rather than as a possession (her speech over his supposed corpse rings surprisingly modern). The Royal Shakespeare Company previously played SHREW and TAMER, back to back, each an evening in itself; Ms. Ciardelli has trimmed both to one act, apiece --- the controversies, however, remain full-scale.

If THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is looked at in the context of its era, the Bard can be cut some guilt-free slack. Katherine has been described as a powerful and independent woman. She is neither, having no money of her own nor career nor social position (she probably cannot read nor write) --- she is the goldbrick in her father’s house. Nor need Baptista be maligned: whereas other fathers of his day would have beaten Katherine, turned her out of doors or had her put to death, Baptista allows his daughter to fume under his roof yet is prepared to send her off with a handsome dowry at the slightest provocation. Nor is Katherine all that horrible (she was raised as a gentlewoman, after all --- qualities necessary to make her transformation believable): to paraphrase a line from one of my own plays, she may act like a bitch but she’s really not; knowing she is an impediment to Bianca’s happiness has forced her hand --- to protect herself from unworthy swains, she must play the shrew, warding off all but the brave of heart. She is a Brunhilde whose circle of fire lies in her tongue.

And what of Petruchio? Little is known about him save that his father was a well known, honorable man. He has a villa but no money. Petruchio’s seeking a rich wife need not mark him as a rogue --- remember, marriage based solely on love is fairly new on the timeline. The key to Petruchio is how does he feel about Katherine? I prefer to have Petruchio either smitten at first sight (and Katherine with him) or to take her in hand and fall head over heels along the way (ditto, Katherine). But is Petruchio brutish by nature or wise and kind beneath all that barracks behavior? Let me counter with a question of my own: has Annie Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER ever been accused of abusing the deaf, dumb and blind Helen Keller (or Henry Higgins, for that matter, towards Eliza Doolittle)? If not, then why should Petruchio? Like Helen, Katherine flails about, unhappy in her darkness; like Annie, Petruchio must become the rock for her to slam up against, again and again, but can never crack --- his strength earns Katherine’s wary respect and eventual love and trust; to quote Margaret Webster, one of the leading Shakespearean directors of her day, Katherine has had her pride, not her spirit, broken. Some may argue that Katherine, though unhappy in her shrew-dom, was at least her own woman and how can she find fulfillment as an Adam’s Rib? I counter by saying modern-day audiences must stop looking for an exact replica of themselves in every mirror they face, be it book, play or film --- “once upon a time” need not be dismissed as one grows up and older….

Mr. Shakespeare wrote SHREW in 1593-94; Mr. Fletcher wrote THE TAMER TAMED in 1611 and there is a world of difference, between them: SHREW is one of the early Comedies, full of zest and the joy of words as the young playwright began to stretch his wings --- it played in the open air to the groundlings and the galleries who liked their comedy lusty and loud. THE TAMER TAMED came a few years before the Bard’s death, Mr. Fletcher being by then a seasoned playwright in solo and in various collaborations --- no doubt, his comedy played indoors to a more sophisticated audience. Not surprisingly, TAMER’s tone is cooler, its humor more cerebral, its poetry held more in check but is nevertheless fascinating as it declares itself SHREW’s rightful twin. For example, when Bianca refuses to appear at her husband’s beck and call at the end of SHREW, another bitch could be viewed in the making; in TAMER, the older Bianca is a plainspoken, commonsensical woman who makes perfect sense --- she would be quite the suffragette, centuries later. But TAMER’s most valuable contribution may be the light it now sheds on Petruchio’s character: on her first entrance, Maria states that she knows all about her husband’s knockabout past and how he treated Katherine which spurs her on to action --- here, Petruchio’s brutality is a given, needing neither demonstration nor development. Was this, then, the way his SHREW character was played in Mr. Shakespeare’s day? If so, then Petruchio is a bully who roundly deserves his comeuppance which certainly justifies Ms. Ciardelli’s casting Jefferson Slinkard, a craggy-faced fellow, as her Petruchio and directing him as the next George C. Scott. To Mr. Slinkard’s credit, he provides much ballsy fun, manages to insert some silk amidst his gravel and even grows handsome --- in SHREW, that is; in TAMER, his older Petrochio is a drunken buffoon, as different from Act One’s hero as Mr. Shakespeare’s two Falstaffs are in HENRY IV and THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. Thus, as directed, Mr. Slinkard fails to convince that this Petruchio has repented at evening’s end --- ah, if life could be that simple: to alter another’s personality for the better simply by tricking him in public!

If this is how Ms. Ciardelli views Petruchio, she should have fine-tuned Katherine to be in sync with her vision: between Ms. Ciardelli and Maren Perry, who doubles as both of Petruchio’s wives, Katherine becomes an intriguing study in vacillation, life-sized rather than epic, with Ms. Perry’s large, expressive eyes signaling that for all her noise this Shrew is terrified at the thought of being married off to someone who doesn’t understand her yet yearns for marriage and a home of her own --- on her own terms. Ms. Perry’s on-the-fence looks allow her Katherine to become plain but formidable in her fury and to turn radiant when she softens into a rare smile. Her transformation is more of a relaxation: rather than doing a complete turnabout, Ms. Perry’s Katherine remains as rowdy as ever but with a difference: she can be herself knowing her tamer would have her no other way. She may swagger through Katherine’s “I am ashamed that women are so simple” as a result but at least no one will say this Katherine has been cowed into submission --- I can picture this husband and wife both yelling “Kill the umpire!” at the next World Series. But won’t you agree that Ms. Perry’s Katherine, prone to slapping her husband’s bottom in mutual affection, goes against the grain of Maria’s charge that for twenty years she was an abused wife? Let me conclude by saying that Ms. Perry, ironically, is as implacable as Maria as she is movingly vulnerable as Katherine (there is nothing soft about this second wife). Again, some fine-tuning would have proved the better glue to joining the play’s halves, together.

Among the supporting cast, the women come off better than the men as they do not cavort in bumpkin fashion as much as their brother-actors do; among the latter, Thom Haneline contributes an endearing, muddled Baptista, blessedly pratfall-free. TAMER’s real glory glows in Summer Serafin --- lovely name! --- as Maria’s sister Livia, torn between her beloved and her awakening feminism. Ms. Serafin, looking as if composed of butter frosting, is a prime example of what I spy less and less of onstage, these days: a womanly performer as opposed to the hard, driven ones I have been viewing on a sadly regular basis (whatever happened to "period" acting?). What if Ms. Serafin had taken on the role of Maria, her creamy surface slowly revealing the hard nut at her center? (Ms. Perry, by contrast, need only go from A to A1 and she is resolved.) Indeed, Ms. Serafin is so much the soubrette of Lillian Russell’s day that she could lay claim to that lady’s title: she is an American Rose.

Ms. Ciardelli directs each act according to its proper music; by streamlining SHREW down to its commedia essentials, she has helped to sweeten the violence and John Hayden has come up with some amusing fight choreography between the battling him and her (I wonder, though: can a woman really feel a smack on her bottom through farthingales and petticoats?). If THE TAMING OF THE SHREW proves to be the far more enjoyable half it may be that THE TAMER TAMED takes some getting used to --- it’s the black coffee after all that foaming ale --- and I wonder if the two shall often be paired together now to neutralize Petruchio's sting to appease modern audiences; good Lord, why else stage THE TAMING OF THE SHREW if NOT to stir up the waters? (I wouldn't be surprised if someone turns up a sequel to THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, where Shylock, now a contented Christian, becomes godfather to Portia's firstborn. Oy!)

Should these scribbles provoke their own controversy, other viewers of THE SHREW TAMER will provoke, in turn, and these plays, four centuries old, shall appear in discussion to be as fresh and timely as if written only yesterday. Which plays of today shall prove as revivable in the year 2404?

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

"The Shrew Tamer" (7 - 24 October)
NORTHERN STAGE
The Briggs Opera House, 58 North Main Street, WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, VT
1 (802) 296-7000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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