The Taming of the Shrew
An all-female cast takes on a famously misogynistic play for Shakespeare in the Park.
A carnival atmosphere pervades director Phyllida Lloyd's production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Or is it a beauty pageant? It's hard to tell in this caffeinated take on the controversial comedy, currently playing the Public Theater's Central Park summer home, the Delacorte Theater.
The titular "shrew" is Katherina (Cush Jumbo), the strong-willed eldest daughter of Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), a wealthy gentleman of Padua. Baptista has decreed that no man may marry his beautiful youngest daughter Bianca (Gayle Rankin) until Katherina is first wed. Veronan bad boy Petruchio (Janet McTeer) sets about the task of taming her into a submissive wife.
Modern feminist directors and critics have naturally bristled at the overt sexism of the plot (Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis admits in his program note that this is the reason he has never directed Shrew). Still others have sought to justify the Bard's misogyny as a satire of middle-class mating rituals. Some also view Shrew as a tale of the subtle power of femininity: That as long as the husband thinks he's the head of the house, the wife can play the role of neck, turning him whichever way she sees fit. A metatheatrical introduction (in which drunkard Christopher Sly, who falsely believes himself to be a lord, sits down to watch the play) has helped support this latter interpretation.
Lloyd completely excises Sly, cutting to the main event. She seems to reject apologies for the text, presenting the story as a straightforward tale of oppressive patriarchy. There's a twist though: All of the roles are played by women (Lloyd has taken a similar tack with her women's prison productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV). It's a bold choice that is not as unconventional as it sounds (an all-male cast performed the original production). It also heightens the performativity of the play: All of the male characters are so over-the-top (as drag performers often are) that it doesn't seem as off-putting that the women are equally ridiculous.
This is especially true of our female protagonist: Jumbo is playing The Exorcist's Linda Blair playing Katherina. We understand why no man wants to go near this shrieking and emotionally disturbed woman. No man, that is, except McTeer's Petruchio: a dom in need of a sub (Mark Thompson outfits McTeer in a leather vest and buckled cowboy boots, hammering home the sadomasochistic vibe). McTeer brings unshakable confidence to her performance. Scratching himself and urinating on the side of a tree, this Petruchio breaks Katherina like a cowboy breaks a bronco.
A strong supporting cast (many of them dressed like extras in Guys and Dolls) aids the central story: Donna Lynne Champlin is hilarious as Hortensio, one of the men vying for Bianca's hand (Thompson costumes her like comedian Sam Kinison, complete with beret and full-length coat). As another, Gremio, Judy Gold proves to be the most entertaining drag king in the cast, so much so that she was called out to perform a standup routine when an impressive yet clunky set piece became stuck and needed to be reset by stage hands.
That set (also designed by Thompson) is one of the major sources of disconnect between performance and design: A platform covered in white stars with a tent flanked by train cars, it suggests a circus. Yet the first performers we see onstage are dressed in red evening gowns and sashes for (we're told by a congested announcer with a thick New York accent) the Miss Lombardy Pageant. It's an awfully funny conceit and gives Champlin an excuse to perform a delightful tap routine to "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but let's be honest: It's also a convenient way to comment on a certain presidential candidate with an affinity for such events.
While there is undoubtedly a direct line from the woman-breaking themes of Shakespeare's text to the vaselined feminine perfection engendered by beauty pageants, Lloyd dilutes the potential of this concept by seeming to choose several others as backups: The actors are beauty queens and gamblers and traveling players and bride-kidnapping cowboys. The end result is a cacophony of ideas that drown one another out.
This is unfortunate because, stripped of all its bells and whistles, this is an incredibly well-acted and compelling production of The Taming of the Shrew. In their interaction, Jumbo and McTeer expose the shades of gray (there are a lot more than 50) inherent in sadomasochistic relationships: complicated issues of obedience, consent, desire, and love.
Lloyd could have advanced the stellar work of her actors by being a better editor. The sage advice of fashion designer Coco Chanel equally applies to the stage: Before leaving the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.