Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taming of the Shrew

There must be something in the water ... at least in Padua. The first of two productions of The Taming of the Shrew featuring an all-female cast opened on April 16 at the Wild Project. The New York-based Queen's Company, an all-woman classical theater troupe now in its 15th season, tackles Shakespeare's comedy by infusing their take, Taming of the Shrew, with a campy feel and a more feminist, redemptive ending. The Public will offer its own version, The Taming of the Shrew, as part of its Shakespeare in the Park series, from May 24-June 26, featuring Tony and Olivier winner Janet McTeer as Petruchio.

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio) and Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) spar.
Photo credit: Bob Pileggi
Shrew tells the story of feisty Katharina and her unwillingness to wed and subjugate herself to a man's whims. That is, until she meets the clever Petruchio, who "tames" her. The misogynist plot, its depiction of women as chattel, and the abuse Katharina suffers under Petruchio's patriarchal hand sometimes earns the play criticism. This critique stung Shrew early on; even in the 1890s--long before political correctness became a trend--Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw said, "No man with any decency of feeling can sit (the final act) out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed." The question with Shrew is what was Shakespeare's intention: is he satirizing a female's role in society, creating a light-hearted farce for entertainment, or showing the transformative power of love? This dichotomy allows Shrew to be adapted in a multitude of ways, making it one of Shakespeare's most produced works.

The play haunted director/play adapter Rebecca Patterson (also the company's artistic director) for years since she oversaw another version about a decade ago: "There is something deeper that ripples beneath the surface--something Shakespeare himself was trying to explore and understand, something about our conflicting desires to either love or dominate ... it is my hope this production takes his lessons a step further than he could, illuminating a way forward toward something better."

In some ways, she succeeds beautifully. Patterson starts the play in modern times, a smart decision that emphasizes the differences of male-female relationships in the new age. A man in period clothing steps out and begins reading a page that falls from a book: "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee." Enter Tiffany Abercrombie as the modern-day version of Katharina, garbed in black, except for her bright wrap. She greets the man's interest with disdain and rolls her eyes at the old-fashioned depiction of females in the tome. Then she knees him. As he crawls off stage, she changes into the period Katharina by donning a red dress over her contemporary clothes.

The updated Katharina, though, remains present onstage with the insertion of women-power songs between scenes. The dialogue may encourage the view that men control the world, but the music of Cyndi Lauper, Blondie and others say otherwise. As Katharina becomes more programmed and less headstrong, the music indicates the sentiment. When the audience hears Tina Turner's "Time for Letting Go," they understand the conflict the main character faces and how she falters after all the harsh conditions she's suffered. In part, music changes the direction of the show and, ultimately, leads to a more favorable outcome for feminism. By the time, Peter Gabriel's "The Book of Love" plays, theatergoers see a Shrew that shows more love story than sexism.

The simple set by Angelica Borrero allows the actors to convey changes in time and place easily. The serviceable costumes (designed by Elizabeth Flores), with the exception of Katharina's splendid red dress and Baptista's regal cape, invoke the feeling of grade-school productions: lots of black pants, neutral-colored shirts and theatrical add-ons (a jacket here, a vest there).

Mostly, the construct of women playing men works. In movement, tone and diction, Elisabeth Preston as Petruchio, is convincing as a male. There is never that overriding Victor/Victoria sense that wow, here's a woman in a man's role. Nylda Mark as Katharina's wealthy father, Baptista, also is noteworthy. A lithe presence, she move with effeminate aristocratic grace while maintaining an authoritative stance. Bianca's lovers/servants don't fare as well. Sometimes their characters seem more pantomime than real. This aligns nicely during the more campy moments where the actors court the more popular sister, Bianca, who can't marry until Katharina does. Played by a blow-up doll, Bianca is the ultimate wet-rag of a woman: a perfect Stepford wife for the Elizabethan era. When the servant/lovers of Bianca lip-synch to Katharina, it also allows for extreme expression. Sometimes, though, when the traditional dialogue is spoken, the crispness of the language is lost in slipped words and too much gesticulation.

Ultimately, though, this Shrew's ending, which emphasizes the heart over wife control, is touching and showcases Abercrombie's wonderfully expressive face as she goes from perfect trophy wife to someone internally suffering to a woman in love.

Taming of the Shrew runs through May 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3 St.) in NYC. 
For more info you can visit Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

(Press seats, fourth row)

No comments: