Love and Hate
Trying to Enjoy Shakespeare Ribald Comedy Amid The Obvious Misogyny
There's no getting around the misogyny at the core of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. You can try to talk yourself out of it, as dramaturg Jen Plants does in her program notes for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's current production at the Evergreen Museum. You can try to restore the usually discarded framing device in an attempt to pass the whole thing off as a drunken dream. You can even cast a real ball of fire, such as the BSF's Dawn Ursula, as Katharina, the shrew who must be tamed.
Nothing works. It's not just that Katharina, the seemingly unconquerable young woman of Padua, finally submits to her domineering husband, Petruchio, at the end of the play; it's that she also delivers a passionate speech in her final scene prescribing to all wives the same submission to their husbands.
And yet the temptation to produce this play is irresistible. For all its faults--not just the misogyny but also some really rickety plotting--the show boasts some terrific characters and some immensely enjoyable comedy. And those characters and that comedy come fully to life in the splendid outdoor production by the BSF.
Shakespeare wrote a prologue for the play involving a working-class drunk (Michael Stebbins) who is discovered passed out by three aristocratic huntsmen. The three Elizabethan frat boys trick the tinker into thinking that he has awakened as a rich nobleman with many servants. They even arrange an evening's entertainment for him, and the show is the main action of Shrew.
Most productions omit the prologue, and for good reason. The drunken dupe has a few more lines and then disappears, as if the Bard grew tired of the gambit and forgot about it. The real excitement begins when Katharina (Ursula) emerges from the woods to the south of the Evergreen House, strides with elbows swinging through the meadow's shadows, and climbs into the stage lights. With frosted corkscrew curls, an aquiline nose, and a golden corset pushing up her cleavage, she plants her fists on her hips and dares any of the male visitors to her father's house to address her. When the foolish Hortensio (Colby Codding) suggests that she might have better luck finding a husband if she "were of gentler, milder mould," she replies that if he were her husband she'd "comb your noddle with a three-legged stool." Ursula leaves no doubt that Hortensio's head would never be the same.
The stage is three islands of hardened white foam gathered between two large overhanging trees. Actors leap from platform to platform and sometimes tumble into the gaps between, especially when Petruchio (James Kinstle) is manhandling his servants. With his pointed beard and green-feathered beret, Kinstle's Petruchio is dashing enough and sweet-talking enough to charm the Paduans, despite his rough treatment of servants, women, rivals, and pretty much anyone he encounters.
Hortensio wants to marry Bianca (the skinny, pretty Christine Demuth), but her father refuses to entertain proposals until his oldest daughter, the shrewish Katharina, is married first. So Hortensio persuades Petruchio, his visiting friend from Verona, to pursue Katharina and her plump dowry. The avaricious Petruchio readily agrees, but when he first meets his prospective bride, the insults fly so fast and furious that it's the verbal equivalent of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. And that's just how director Joe Brady stages the scene. The bystanders hold a rope in a square to denote a boxing ring, Katharina dons red padded gloves, Petruchio dons blue, and they pound away.
The staging is a risky strategy, for it sabotages any semblance of realism and commits the production to the broadest of comedies. It works, though, for Brady and his large cast have a gift for big-gesture laughs. It's the kind of theater that works best in an outdoor setting, and the purposeful exaggeration softens the misogyny's edges.
The great Bruce Nelson plays Tranio, the servant who gets to pretend he's a wealthy, pompous nobleman, while Peter Boyer gets to play Gremio as a bald, hunchbacked troll stirring up mischief. As the young lovers Bianca and Lucentio, Demuth and Peter Kendall are both vivid characters and as randy as dogs in heat. And when Petruchio shows up for his own wedding with a pair of underpants atop his head, the comic delirium is complete.
Dominating the production, however, is Ursula. After standing out in supporting roles in the Everyman Theatre productions of Gem of the Ocean and Much Ado About Nothing, she finally gets a leading role and makes the most of it. For most of the play when Katharina is a stubborn, unrepentant shrew, Ursula's bristling presence makes you aware that she might explode at any minute--and when she does, the lines crack like the long, black whip she often carries around. When Katharina finally gives in to Petruchio, Ursula rolls her eyes and gives a big grin, as if she realized it were just a game she were playing. But then she has to deliver that final, hard-to-swallow speech.
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