Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Taming of the Shrew"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Carl A. Rossi


by William Shakespeare
directed by Melia Bensussen

Tranio; Player; Widow … Edward M. Barker
Baptista; Owner of the Bar; Curtis; Tailor … Steven Barkhimer
Hortensio; Player … Daniel Berger-Jones
Pertruchio; Christopher Sly … Benjamin Evett
Bianca; Busboy … Ross Bennett Hurwitz
Gremio; Player; Pedant … Craig Mathers
Kate; Player … Sarah Newhouse
Lucentio; Player … Risher Reddick
Grumio; Bartender … Michael Forden Walker

Today’s directors would save themselves a lot of fancy footwork should they ever set THE TAMING OF THE SHREW in the era in which Shakespeare wrote it rather than make nice-nice with Petruchio and Kate should they graft it onto modern times (I plead the same case for THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and OTHELLO). Elizabethan costumes, conventions and stagecraft would allow the audience to view SHREW from an historical perspective and (hopefully) agree that, within such context, Kate’s evolution from unhappy spinster to happy wife is not so horrible, after all. But since many directors don’t trust the Bard’s timelessness and/or their audience’s intelligence, SHREW-interpretations predominate (politically correct ones, damn it) --- they may change the locale and costumes, but directors must still know how to handle Shakespeare’s verse and, more importantly, to see SHREW for what it is: a love story with a mutually happy ending.

Everything pivots on Kate’s character. She is not a career-woman with a life of her own; she is the elder daughter in her father’s house, resentful (and scared?) from being hounded into marrying so that her beloved sister Bianca may pay court to her own suitors --- Kate may spit and hiss at her father’s entreaties, but she also clings to him since her power, paradoxically, comes from remaining his little girl. Rather than storming up and down the halls, all day, Kate runs her widowed father’s household; thus, she knows how to cook and sew and could “dwindle into a wife” should she set her mind and heart to it (why not, at auditions, ask actresses auditioning for Kate if they can sew?). (Also: does Kate know how to read and write?) Kate’s sharp tongue stems from intelligence, not an overflowing spleen --- as a Boomer would say, Kate tells it like it is regarding men and marriage (and her arguments are sound), but her words have long fallen upon deaf male ears --- the more the men dismiss her as a shrew, the louder Kate shouts to be heard (and, remember, Kate is a virgin: she will not give up her maidenhead to just any fellow) --- thus she is in full roar when Petruchio comes to call. Kate is no Amazon yet akin to Wagner’s Brunhilde: when Wotan punishes his favorite daughter by stripping her of her powers and announcing that she shall sleep until awakened and claimed by the first man that finds her, Brunhilde pleads for protection (she does NOT want a wimp for a husband!), thus, Wotan surrounds her with fire so that only the bravest of men --- a Hero who can pass through the flames --- can have her. Lacking a ring of magic fire, Kate uses her shrewishness (much of it, a put-on, I’m sure) to keep unworthy suitors at bay... Finally, Kate should be attractive and womanly and well worth the battle --- the actress portraying her should be equally at home as both Rosalind and Beatrice.

Petruchio must also be cut some slack. He is a man in an age where marriages are arrangements between two wealthy households, and what’s love got to do with it? (A director must make this Elizabethan view of marriage perfectly clear to modern audiences: another plea for setting the play in its original setting.) Petruchio may be a conventional fortune-hunter but has an unconventional zest for life: he wants money AND a wife who will keep him challenged (and, thus, faithful) --- he could never find happiness with demure, sheep-eyed Bianca: he recognizes Kate as his soul-mate (and pal) long before she does and cunningly makes her come to realize and agree that they are meant for each other --- somewhere along the way, Kate must fall in love with Petruchio, but where? In what passage? (In my mind’s eye, I see Kate’s unspoken question “Is he the one?” becoming “He IS the one!”) Petruchio’s outrageous courtship should amuse as well as provoke Kate, his mock-cruelty towards his servants must trigger her latent decorum, and her willingness to kiss him before all en route to beddy-bye should hint that he’s great in the sack. In short, the shrew’s transformation is believable only when filtered through love for her so-called tamer; to quote the late Margaret Webster, Petruchio has not broken Kate’s spirit; he has merely broken her pride. Petruchio is the Hero who vows to turn a Dragon into a Princess and the audience, especially the women, must WANT him to succeed, not dismiss him as a slob. Casting a virile, charismatic actor in the role is half the battle won.

SHREW launches the sixth season of Actors’ Shakespeare Project --- I’ve not seen an ASP production for awhile and thus attended with refreshened eyes only to see the same deconstructed Shakespeare as before, performed by a troupe where half its actors are not Shakespearean in voice, temperament or training (though I’ve seen some of them shine for other playwrights). I’ll wager that most of these actors cannot fence (in ASP's all-female MACBETH, they threatened each other with chairs), nor have they ever aurally seduced me to where I could close my eyes and just listen to the beauty of Shakespeare’s words, properly declaimed; no matter who is added to or subtracted from each ensemble, this seems to be as far as ASP shall go, and their current SHREW is evidence, enough. First, there is the evening’s concept: Melia Bensussen sets her production in a working-class bar of today and includes the Christopher Sly prelude with the drunken tinker stepping forth to play Petruchio (how odd to hear “my lord” among these blue-collar types); how annoying to watch pre-rehearsed actors clutching scripts and pretending to ad-lib their way through a performance --- halfway through a long Act One, the Sly-Petruchio tosses his copy and the evening lurches into life (and not a moment too soon). Ms. Bensussen swings back and forth from period-fidelity to anachronism --- you know: anything for a laugh --- and she has her actors rush through all that talk talk talk or make it “understandable” with wham-bang slapstick --- no attempt is made to establish the quiet, “normal” world of Baptista and Bianca; I was numb long before Petruchio and Kate’s first encounter, and their courtship became more noise upon noise. In short, Ms. Bensussen has aimed for the groundlings and ignored the galleries and succeeded --- the evening is all pig-bladders, no poetry.

Sarah Newhouse, the most clenched actress in the Boston area, has clearly been cast as Kate for a feminist slant; with more sympathetic directors, Ms. Newhouse could become a handsome, aristocratic presence, but in ASP shows she has always been hard, harder, and cold --- I knew in advance what kind of Kate that I would be seeing and was not proven wrong: I did not believe Kate’s love for Petruchio, I did not believe Kate’s final transformation (her costumer did little to help her --- and it could have been a Moment, too), and Ms. Newhouse rattles through the now-controversial speech to wives as if it were a bad taste in her mouth --- her attempts at softness is merely sun-warmed granite; I predict her Rosalinds and Beatrices would be more of the same. Elsewhere I’ve seen Benjamin Evett excel at playing smug, boorish men; in ASP shows, he is a smug, boorish actor --- still, his Petruchio proved a hit with the audience on the night I attended; but, then, Mr. Evett is checked and balanced by Ms. Newhouse. With one exception who shall go nameless, the supporting cast is a delightful and vocally nimble one despite the nonstop rough-housing, and I single out Ross Bennett Hurwitz’s Bianca for double-praise: first, for a tasteful and attractive impersonation that links back to Shakespeare’s boy-players in women’s roles and, second, for supplying some much-needed charm to this SHREW, especially when Bianca briefly takes to a microphone, and when one of the suitors later kisses Mr. Hurwitz/Bianca on the mouth, that kiss is truly Pirandellian.

"The Taming of the Shrew" (14 October - 8 November)
Downstairs at the Garage, Harvard Square, 38 JFK Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (866) 811-4111

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide