Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Critic
I have to admit that I was a bit shocked to read that William Shakespeare's comedic play The Taming of the Shrew—according to a survey conducted by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2003—ranks as the second most popular of the Bard's entire repertoire.
One of his earlier works from his ubiquitous career (scholars say it was written somewhere between 1590 to 1592), the play somehow still manages to bring the laughter and frivolity in almost every production, even with its unabashedly misogynistic machinations. By modern standards, the play's view of the sexes—specifically its view of women—feels incredibly outdated, absurdly offensive, and, even worse, quite cringe-worthy, particularly lately in the midst of the 21st Century's surging #MeToo movement.
But in the world of theater classics—Shakespearean or otherwise—such an old-world, antiquated vibe towards the "battle" of the sexes is somehow forgivable… acceptable, even… simply because of its storied pedigree. Forgiveness is (somewhat) awarded because the original play, after all, initially existed in a different era so very far removed from our present. Therefore, one should instead concentrate praise for Shakespeare's indisputable gifts with words and wit… never mind those pesky, backward views on how to treat and portray women.
So, then how do you solve a problem like Katherina?
For playwright Amy Freed, it means reworking Shakespeare's archaic play, injecting it with a noticeable dose of equality empowerment, and then shifting its characters' traits and motivations as if written from a female's perspective.
In South Coast Repertory's latest World Premiere production—which continues performances in Costa Mesa through April 21—“SHREW!” (yes, with an exclamation point) takes on the familiar story and tweaks it in a way that not only gives it a reverent nod to Shakespeare's original but also rejiggers it for modern, more progressive tastes. In the process, the play straddles a fence between old and new and becomes keenly self-aware of what it's doing, resulting in a curiously funny, entertaining, and (dare I say) more romantic new spin on a stage classic.
Right from the start, “SHREW!” plunges itself into its "new" premise: what if a strong-willed, highly intelligent, self-assured 16th-Century female playwright—clearly much too ahead of her time—is tasked to "fix" a fellow writer's apparently problem-plagued stage play?
Played assertively by Susannah Rogers, this unnamed script doctor—attired in men's clothes as her way of breaking into a normally male-dominated line of work—bursts into the room in a huff. She has just gotten her hands on a manuscript from some "balding actor" (a gentle jab at Shakespeare, of course) that has left her exasperated. How should she tinker with this play's unfair portrayal of courtship?
As she puts quill to parchment, suddenly her revisionist version of The Taming of the Shrew unfolds before our very eyes—a meticulously parallel, alternate universe version that remarkably lines up with Shakespeare's original in plot beats, language treatment, and period visuals, only now reworked with meta-aware winks and purposefully "tamed" misogyny. Tonally, the play amps up the silliness and farcical elements to almost absurd heights, making one wonder whether it's a crutch for its still developing fine-tuning. Be that as it may, I found myself chuckling quite a bit.
Fans and purists knowledgeable of Shakespeare's original will likely enjoy how the play’s revamped scenes and vignettes line up with what they know from the 400-plus-year-old play, but with an upended twist that makes it much more palatable. Freed even attempts to mimic Shakespeare's meter—a task jarringly broken up by the occasional insertion of modern-day words that probably never existed in the Bard's era.
Naturally, the female playwright has cast herself as the play's new-and-improved "Shrew," renamed Katherine (played, of course, by Rogers in more feminine clothes than her writer counterpart).
The basic bones of the story, though, remains the same: wealthy man Baptista (Martin Kildare) fights off multiple suitors for her youngest daughter Bianca (Sierra Jolene), asserting that no one shall marry her until her eldest daughter Katherine is married off first.
Unfortunately, her prospects are slim. Katherine is generally seen in a negative light because, well, apparently she's just too damn assertive and self-reliant, and, oh no… she's also smart and an independent thinker—qualities that are just not attractive to the men of the village.
In comes, Petruchio (Elijah Alexander), a man newly arrived from Verona and—hello, convenient plot ingredient—happens to be in search of a wife. This info is great news for his pal Hortensio (Peter Frechette), a local man who urges him to pursue Katherine, which, in turn he hopes will open up the possibility of freeing up Bianca, whom Hortensio fancies. But Hortensio has some competition: newly arrived handsome young university student Lucentio (Brett Ryback) has also fallen for Bianca at first sight and makes it his mission to win her heart (among other body parts).
In between, disguised identities and clowny sidekicks enter the melee.
As for Petruchio and Katherine, they get inexplicably married and the two move into his home back in Verona. Rather than manipulate the strong-willed, slightly resistant Katherine into "loving" him, he proceeds to woo her by championing the very qualities she has that others may find objectionable. For her part, Katherine begins to slowly fall for Petruchio's almost chill, nonchalant treatment of her, opening up for both to let loose and reveal their mutual vulnerabilities.
Fun but flawed, “SHREW!” is by all accounts an enjoyable draft of a work-in-progress play with plenty of potential in its well-meaning comedic infrastructure. The play was first developed and workshopped at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival, which has now been converted into a full-fledged production admirably directed and choreographed by Art Manke. The assembled cast is top-notch, particularly leads Rogers and Alexander, who have both created lively and very likable new takes on a pair of familiar Shakespearean roles.
While the play, overall, is entertaining and incredibly funny and had me enjoying seeing its parallel revisions compared to Shakespeare's original, there's something about it that feels like a live taping of a sitcom, where a team of writers are off hidden in the wings still re-writing lines for its hardworking ensemble for maximum laughs, while at the same time strictly adhering to an outline that Shakespeare himself could have typed up on his laptop that no one is allowed to deviate from completely. The scripted moments are much better than the neuvo-vaudevillian moments that sometimes landed with belly laughs or confusing crickets.
I feel like this duality—offering a more romantic revisionist reboot but staying beholden to the narrative trajectory bullet points set forth by Shakespeare's original—both help and hinder it a bit. “SHREW!” has a spontaneous, almost improv quality to it that I appreciated, but it also made me curious as to where this play is in its creative timeline. Is there a more fine-tuned version of this play in its future? For its sake, I genuinely hope so.
At its core, “SHREW!” achieves its goals for the most part. The fact that the title character in this iteration gets to figure out her romantic feelings—without even the slightest bit of manipulation or cruel psychological trickery as Petruchio enacts in Shakespeare's original—is already a checkmark in the "win" column.
Instead of witnessing a fiery woman's actual "taming," the "taming" in question is upended to be more of a guise—which finds Katherine breaking down some of that wall she's put up to shield others from seeing her more vulnerable side. She doesn't so much break the glass ceiling here but, rather, cracks open some of the prefab skylights she installed herself.
And, yes, here, Kate's pursuer Petruchio still gets the girl—but does so without coercion or humiliation or talking down to her.
I also noticed (and appreciated) that male characters here are less macho-fied and testosterone-fueled. Whether that's an acting, directing, or script choice, the gentler men in “SHREW!” is an interesting tonal change (at one point I even half-expected Lucentio to end up with his servant Tranio, played by Jeremy Peter Johnson, but that might be a little bit of Love, Simon wishful thinking on my part).
Ironically, although Shakespeare's play is now being "fixed" by a female playwright, Katherine's younger sister doesn't come off too flatteringly in this revisionist adaptation. Written (and portrayed) as extra dumb, extra self-absorbed, and sporting a mean-girl cadence that serves only as an unfair contrast to the "smarter," more woke Katherine, it's a bit of an easy go-to and, frankly, a missed opportunity to surprise the audience.
Putting a refreshed spin on Shakespeare is certainly a daunting task, but because this production of “SHREW!” is now occupying the same space that featured a similarly-motivated “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE” just a mere few weeks ago, it's hard not to make comparisons—especially when both productions' main set structures (both designed by Ralph Funicello) are pretty much the same (save for a different paint job). Even the same four-poster bed that hosted a sexual encounter in “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE” makes a similarly significant center-stage cameo appearance in “SHREW!”
Economically, it's smart… but in presentation, it just seems a little, um, lazy. Effective, yes, but still lazy. Thankfully the lovely costumes designed by David Kay Mickelsen don't appear to be recycled.
But, I must say, one of the more significant changes Freed introduces into the play that I truly enjoyed is a new ending speech given by Katherine that is a complete departure from how it's treated in Shakespeare's antiquated original. Definitively breaking the fourth wall and perhaps even traveling forward to 2018, Katherine expresses her feelings about what she has just gone through directly to the audience. In that moment, past and present finally find a way to get along.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
The World Premiere production of “SHREW!” continues at South Coast Repertory through April 21, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.