For decades, The Taming of the Shrew has posed a problem for lovers of Shakespeare. The central plot, in which the willful Katherina's spirit is broken by the clever Petruchio, is seen as regressive at best, and many find it overtly sexist. Others believe that Taming is a satirical piece, meant to skewer misogyny rather than perpetuate it. Many theaters have added new elements to the play in an attempt to re-contextualize it, to mixed results. The latest effort, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, may well be the best of the bunch.
A new framing story plays out in the parlor of the Columbia Women's Club, a social group for well-to-do ladies in 1919 Chicago. The club is days away from their performance of The Taming of the Shrew, an exhibition that will complete their staging of Shakespeare's entire canon. They begin their dress rehearsal while the Senate is on the cusp of voting on women's suffrage.
This conceit, developed by director Barbara Gaines and written by the Second City's Ron West, neatly solves many of the problems presented by The Taming of the Shrew. These politically conscious women frequently interrupt their own rehearsal, giving notes and critiquing the play's chauvinist themes, addressing the elephant in the room head-on. When a woman plays Petruchio (even a woman as commanding and athletic as Crystal Lucas-Perry), this physical violence between the two characters is less problematic, as the two actors are more evenly matched. And most importantly, it's just plain funny.
The 13 actresses onstage appear to be having the time of their lives hamming it up. Each plays a member of the Women's Club as well as a character in their play within a play. Though the new dialogue leans too heavily on inside jokes and knowing winks to current events, every joke is joyfully delivered, and the good mood onstage is infectious. Gaines's staging is buoyant and boisterous: As the women begin their "rehearsal," they make a playground of the chaise lounges and marble busts in their club's parlor.
Standouts from the cast include Lucas-Perry, who slips between the swaggering chauvinist Petruchio and the crusading Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne with vigor, and Hollis Resnik, who is equally riotous as the lecherous Gremio and the no-nonsense Miss Judith Smith. Kate Marie Smith and Heidi Kettenring make a winning pair as young lover Lucentio and his conniving servant Tranio. Olivia Washington's Bianca is sweet and graceful, and Alexandra Henrikson plays a fabulous Katherine as her Mrs. Louise Harrison begins a transition from a submissive and frivolous Gibson Girl into a self-assured suffragette.
It is not only the new framing dialogue or the rollicking performances that make this Taming of the Shrew a success. The Women's Club parlor is beautifully represented by Kevin Depinet's sumptuous set, and lit to glossy perfection by Thomas Hase. Susan Mickey's costume design is clever and versatile, with the ladies' bloomers serving double duty as Elizabethan breeches.
Gaines has a way of breathing new life into classic works, and she's done it again here. By magnifying the gender dynamics instead of shying away from them, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has created a must-see take on The Taming of the Shrew.
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