- OnStage D.C./Los Angeles Critic
WASHINGTON DC - There’s nothing I love more than non-traditional Shakespeare and this production was exactly that. Non-traditional. This Production, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, was set in mid-20th century Europe at its height of fashion.
This production also was a musical of sorts due to the fact the characters would often break out into contemporary musical numbers to advance characterization, including adding some aspects to characters that were not in Shakespeare’s original work. But we’ll talk about that later. The Taming of the Shrew follows a father, Senor Baptista and his desire to find a husband for his eldest daughter, Katherina, so that he may then find a husband for his daughter Bianca. This seems like a harmless enough task if it weren’t for the fact that Katherina is infamous for being a foul-mouthed shrew who does not have any gentlemen callers. Bianca however, is loved by all and has many men fighting for affection, specifically local noblemen Hortensio and Gremio, and the newly arrived in town Lucentio. Hilarity ensues when various characters decide to go undercover to infiltrate Baptista’s house to seduce Bianca from the inside until a husband can be found for Kate. Eventually Kate does find a husband in the mischievous Petruchio, leaving Bianca’s hand available for marriage. The rest is the show so I wouldn’t dare spoil it!
This show is traditional to Shakespeare in one sense: All the actors were male. They weren’t males being portrayed in “drag” however, they were just men playing females, and convincingly. So convincingly, I might add, that many people around me were shocked when they realized Bianca was played by a man (the very talented Oliver Thornton). The director’s reasoning behind this casting choice was very honest and sincere. It boiled down to this: The Taming of the Shrew is viewed as very sexist and misogynistic these days, and justifiably so. This director states that is would be “monstrous” to ask a women to perform Kate’s role and her last speech specifically, in today’s world. The all-male cast is a true look at identity in this work, not gender. It is also very interesting that the Public Theatre in NYC is mounting an all-female production of this show and I can only imagine that the reasoning is similar and the effect will be just as powerful. As Iskandar put it “maybe this play can only be produced this way now”. There are five main aspects of the show I would like to focus on that really made this play something spectacular.
This show had just about every skin tone you could think of (the way a show should be). Starting with Katherina, played beautifully by 30 Rock’s Maulik Pancholy who is of Indian decent. Although Kate’s sister is white and Kate has a much darker complexion, I never once felt like they weren’t sisters. I believed it all the way. Their father Baptista, played by Bernard White also had a darker complexion that fit the character and the setting. You also had Tony nominee André De Shields who played several parts throughout the show, including Vincentio who plays Lucentio’s father. Like before, I 100% believed he was Lucentio’s father even though Vincentio was African-American and Lucentio was of Asian descent. Throw in several people with English accents like Peter Gadiot who played Petrucchio, who reminded me of Kit Harington from Game of Thrones, and you’ve got a brilliantly diverse cast of talented performers who played their roles both well and convincingly.
The costumes for this show, helmed by Loren Shaw, were simply fantastic. As I stated earlier, the show was set in 1950’s Italy where fashion and fashion magazines were very popular. The play suggested that Baptista made his fortune by having his own fashion magazine that Bianca modeled for. That being said, the house of Minola had to have elegant costumes and it did indeed. Baptista sported a golden outfit for the majority of the show that showed his social status immediately. Bianca wore mainly pink throughout the show, solidifying her character as “a perfect lady”. All the suitors were also upper class so they all sported top notch clothing, from fur capes, to gold chains, to fine denim, to long formal jackets. Kate also had an amazing wedding gown, not to mention the excellent job the costumers did with Kate and Petruchio’s “peasant” costumes after they leave the wedding which is quite the contrast from the other characters. In a nice homage to classic Shakespeare many characters at one point or another wore costumes that while seemingly modern, also incorporated codpieces. I confess my favorite pieces were the red jackets that Petruchio and eventually Kate show off in the last scene of the show that suggested a phoenix design.
I could write here all day about the acting in this show and how each line was given with elegance and eloquence but I don’t have the time. The true acting glory in this show were the subtle things (looks, gestures, etc.) Now as I’ve said before I can’t give credit to the director or the actors when it comes to subtlety because it could have been blocked that way or it could have been a character choice from the actor. Either way greatness was achieved. Before I talk about the subtle things I must fill you in on some things. This show added two romances that aren’t usually present in the show, without adding any dialogue to the original play. I’ll talk about how in a bit. They added a one-sided romance from Tranio, Lucentio’s man-servant, towards Lucentio, and they also added a seemingly two-sided romance between Bianca and Biondello, a poor local hired man working with Lucentio. This matters because some of the best acting in this show was on the faces of Tranio (played by Matthew Russel) and Biondello (played by Drew Foster) when Bianca’s marriage to Lucentio was solidified. The looks of just sheer heartbreak and loss was enough to crush anybody’s spirit. André De Shields and Tom Story (playing Hortensio) also had their fair share of great moments, especially when it came to interacting with Kate. Great subtle things also contributed to the solid performance of Petruchio who would do things like pick his toes, shove food in his mouth and so on to make it clear he was a nobleman in name only. A great performance was also given by Gregory Linington as Grumio, who appeared be the most perfected Shakespearean actor on stage. I’ll disclose that my favorite bit of subtle acting was this look on Kate’s face on her wedding day, a look of absolute regret and fear that sticks with audience well after the curtain call has ended.
As I stated above this could have just as easily been considered a musical as opposed to a play. I like to consider it a happy middle ground. This show used musical number to do so much, the opening number set the theme for the show, they had numbers that expressed characterization, secret desires, and everything in between. Just about all music came from Duncan Sheik, a composer most known for the Tony-nominated, Spring Awakening. You could tell instantly the music came from the creator of Spring Awakening, because most of it had that teenage angst vibe to it as well as great romantic numbers. These were contemporary songs that seemed to flow flawlessly into the words Shakespeare provided us. It made the plot and the characters so much stronger and it was more understandable/enjoyable to the audience. Some of the more impressive musical numbers were “Shine Inside” where the audience learns of Tranio’s secret love for his master, “Mouth on Fire” which is sung by the ensemble as Petruchio tames his shrew, and the closing number “The End of the Outside” which left a bittersweet taste in the audience’s mouth and left us wondering if this really was one of Shakespeare’s comedy’s we had just watched. The strongest Vocalists were Telly Leung (playing Lucentio) and Drew Foster who were just brilliant. Also, with any musical number there is choreography, so kudos to Chase Brock on the good work there.
This aspect of the show was like nothing I had ever seen, heard of, or experienced before. It started out when you first got the Theatre and there were merchants as well as actors from the production who talk with you and encouraged pictures. They sang, drank, and laughed throughout the theatre which made you care about these characters before the curtain even went up because you just danced and sang with them in the lobby! They also made a point to block scenes throughout the audience periodically so we felt included. I was in the front row so they interacted with me more than most, and it made me feel very special and invested into this production. The most interesting and creative thing happened at intermission. Right before intermission there was the marriage of Kate. Intermission was the reception of the wedding on stage. So the audience was invited on stage to drink and mingle with the cast for twenty minutes, all the while the cast was still in character and performing musical numbers. They served wedding cake and wine, to over age patrons of course, and there was also some interesting character development happening if you were paying attention that I won’t spoil for you. The cast also greeted the audience in the lobby after the show was over and talked and took pictures and it was such a great time for all.
So in conclusion I recommend this show to anyone and everyone. It is an important look into society not only back then but also how society is moving forward. There isn’t a weak actor in the bunch or a weak vocalist, and you’ll never feel more involved or attached in another production the way this The Taming of the Shrew will makes you feel. This production is on till June 26th and tickets can be bought online (http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/) or you can call 202.547.1122. Please do yourselves a favor and see this show before it’s too late!