A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
 
 
 
 
The Taming of the Shrew
“The Taming of the Shrew” is a delightful production of this early comedy, replete with turnabouts as identities are changed, poses are dropped, and love conquers all, ending with fireworks and a joyful wedding dance.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh resolves the accusation of sexism leveled at the play over the past couple of decades: that Petruchio is a swaggering bully whose tactics force Katherina into submission.  George Bernard Shaw agreed, and more lately, at least one critic walked out, while on another occasion, the audience booed Kate’s final speech. Director Kavanaugh solves this by having the pair fall in love at their very first meeting.  She also gives depth to the principal characters, Petruchio and Katherina, by taking them seriously as real people, not cartoons in a farce.  Early on, before they meet, each is depicted as an outsider, isolated from the jovial, conventional citizens of Padua.   She alerts us to Petruchio’s first lines, explaining to his friend Hortensio that he has arrived from Verona because “Antonio my father is deceased,/ And I have thrust myself into this maze.” He is wandering, looking for a way out of the “maze,” wearing a black armband on the jacket of his suit when his travels take him to the public square in Padua, depicted as a small Italian town in the thirties.  Designer Kit Surrey modeled the set on the square of the small town in Sicily where Michael Corleone hides from vengeful assassins in The Godfather.

The townspeople see nonconformist Katherina as a “shrew,” a nagging woman outside their prescribed pattern for women, like submissive Patient Griselda. Katherina’s childish behavior, yelling, biting, striking, is to gain attention, especially that of her father, Baptista, because he favors his younger daughter, Bianca.  She is advised by him to have nothing to do with her elder sister, who has just tied Bianca’s hands: “Poor girl, she weeps./ Go ply thy needle, meddle not with her.” Katherina turns on her father: “Nay, now I see/ She is your treasure, she must have a husband;/ I must dance barefoot on her wedding day.” Blonde, mincing Bianca has three suitors; no man will go near Katherina, even for the large dowry offered by Baptista, who will not allow Bianca to marry until someone – anyone – marries Katherina.  Enter Petruchio.

 As impressively played by John Hodgkinson, Petruchio is a man of the world, despite his detachment from it; he has been a soldier, he tells the suitors who encourage him to ask for Katherina’s hand, to clear their way to Bianca.  When they warn him against a shrew, he replies,  “Have I not heard great ordnance in the field…Have I not in a pitched battle heard/ Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets clang?/ And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue?”  Nor is he put off by the wound to the head of Hortensio, injured by Katherina when he tried to teach her the lute.  As Petruchio waits to meet her, he improvises a course of action, to praise her, despite her behavior - - and takes a few swigs from a small silver flask to bolster up his courage (a good directorial touch).  Sirine Saba’s Kate cares nothing about her appearance, unkempt long hair and bulky overalls, a woman who holds everyone in low esteem, including herself.

To have Petruchio facing away when they meet, is a clever directorial touch, for when he turns, and they see each other, it is apparent from the deft acting of both, that this is love at first sight.  The banter and the physical horseplay that follow, including her biting and his restraining embrace, take on added significance.  And in Shakespeare’s comedies (as well as “Romeo and Juliet”), love is always at first sight.  Here, Lucentio, also a visitor to Padua, falls  in love with Bianca when he first sees her, and to gain access to her, changes clothes with his servant to pose as a scholarly teacher.

As their first volcanic meeting ends, Petruchio departs for Venice to arrange for the wedding on Sunday, and his final kiss has its desired effect, for we next meet Kate in her wedding dress.  It is the skill of both the actors, Mr. Hodgkinson and Ms. Saba, that maintains the growing regard for each other that underlies the rocky road from the wedding, for which he turns up in a dress, through the honeymoon in Venice, where she, deprived of food and sleep, realizes that his outrageous behavior mirrors hers, to the last scene, where they display their mature love. Delivered to the assembled company at Bianca’s wedding feast, Kate’s final speech, therefore, is a kind of love paean, directed to Petruchio, and it shines with joy and love.

 

The cast are uniformly good, especially the trio of suitors to Bianca, Dominic Marsh as Lucentio, James Wallace as Hortensio, and Andrew Melville as Gremio, the older man who, in this materialistic society, lists his possessions with pride, only to have them capped by David Partridge’s Tranio, posing as Lucentio.  As the worried father Baptista, Timothy Kightley is impressive, and Sheridan Smith is a pretty and preening Bianca.  Most of the cast handle the dialogue well, so that it is fully understandable, a virtue that contributes to the popularity of Shakespeare performances at the Open Air Theatre.