Shaking the Spear: How an All-Male Cast Can Tame a “Shrew”

It’s been a while since last I saw The Taming of the Shrew performed onstage—and I didn’t even get to see the feat accomplished. Halfway through, a curtain of rain descended on the players (Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman among them), putting a premature end to one of those open-air affairs at New York’s Delacorte Theater. Maybe Kate was lucky that night, for Petruchio sure rains on what might have been her parade. The ending is a challenge for today’s producers and can be an ordeal for the audience, especially those who regard the theater as a political correctional facility of post-modern society. It’s an ending that can make or break both Kate and the play she’s stuck in; for, depending on how The Taming is framed, the bride may well be. So, when I finally got to see Kate reach the end of the matrimonial tether last Friday, in a production by the touring Propeller company, I felt that something had gone terribly wrong.

Propeller stages Shakespearean dramas with an all-male cast, an approach at once traditional and revisionist, considering that female roles used to be performed by male actors and that we, more than four hundred years on, are not at all conditioned to see such casting as conventional, no matter how open-minded we might think ourselves. Last year’s Propeller production of The Winter’s Tale was so sensitive and engrossing as to de-politicize gender, despite the fact that the guys in gowns sport prominent chest hair and bald spots. It was a revelation to see those tokens of testosterone atomized in tender humanity. The man-handled Shrew, by comparison, is as subtle as the Birdcage—and that nut-strewn coop is no place for a chick-lit contender like Katherine. Strangely enough, cross-dressing had little to do with her mistreatment.

As adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren, The Taming refuses to put Petruchio in his place by taking advantage of the apparatus provided, a frame that, as in the 1937 radio version starring John Barrymore, is often removed, leaving the make-believe sparring of Kate and Petruchio unmediated. Petruchio is, after all, a character in a play staged for the purpose of making fun of Christopher Sly, an irresponsible, common drunkard. The frame, to be sure, can be set up as a ready excuse for the misogynist picture within. It is the shaming of Sly that can make the taming of Kate tolerable—and the Propeller players won’t have it that way.

Their version adds a prologue in which Sly is seen standing up his bride at the altar; but instead of getting his come-uppance by becoming the plaything for a nobleman disgusted by the looks of a vagrant lout he encounters, Sly himself is being cast in a raucous shrew-taming comedy and, instead of being a confused if fascinated onlooker, gets to don the mask of Petruchio, a stage costume that becomes an extension of Sly’s macho persona. He is not so much humiliated than humored. And while he has to be reminded in the end that what he performed was merely the illusion of a taming, he is still free to exit the stage as he entered it, free to take women or leave them hanging.

It is the revision of the opening scene that makes the ending so troubling. If Sly gets to play out a fantasy, one he so clearly relishes, without having to deal with the responsibilities of matrimony, the framed Taming is like an episode of the Jerry Springer show featuring the antics of a self-centered, insensitive, and hormonally overcharged jerk. Impersonated with swagger and brawn by Dugald Bruce Lockhart, Sly (in the role of Petruchio) gets considerably more sinister and less likable as the taming proceeds; but, without any chastising or moralizing, he still comes out on top, whereas Kate is reduced to a stoic Victorian heroine, suffering yet submissive.

Taming is a domestic comedy that turns on you in its bitterness; yet Simon Scardifield’s Kate is hardly in on what fun there is to begin with. Instead, she comes across like a desperately mousy housewife so little in need of taming—as all the flamboyant and badly behaved men around her are fiercer far than she—that we pity her before we had much of a chance to cheer her on. I appreciate a fresh take, if fresh it be; but, this time around, Propeller seems to have spun its gay blades out of control.

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