Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
Roger Rees’ production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” will make people fall in love with the theatre. That is a very very dangerous thing to do – parents are sobbing into their swiss-processed decaffeinated coffee this morning, rueing the day they ever sent little John or Jane to the wicked, wicked theatre because now they have packed their discman and their Airwalks and are Broadway bound. Heck, this show is good enough to have me packing my transistor radio and Birkenstocks and heading in the same direction! This is the stuff that theatre is made of.
If you like your Shakespeare (and I do use that term loosely) in doublet and hose – stay home. There is nary a doublet to be seen. Rees has set his “Shrew” in the Italy of the 1950’s, on a towering amorphous set by Neil Patel that serves as Padua, Verona, house, church, indoors, outdoors, and everywhere in between. Rock music blares between the scenes and Elvis makes an appearance on a motor scooter. At times the actors stick closely to the script and at times they take great liberties. Considering that Shakespeare probably wasn’t the sole author of “Shrew” this should be less distressing to purists than a similar treatment of “Hamlet” might be.
But anyone can put Shakespeare’s characters in modern dress and play rock music. What lifts this production out of the realm of being innovative just to be innovative and deposits it on the lofty heights of brilliance? Talent and energy.
Roger Rees is a Shakespearean actor of international reknown because he possess those two qualities in abundance. For the WTF to bring him in as both star and director of this production was their real coup of the summer. And the Tony award winning Bebe Neuwirth is every inch his equal. Together as Kate and Petruchio they are magic, and the fun they seem to be having on the stage is infectious.
They are surrounded by a talented and energetic supporting cast. Carrie Preston, all dolled up as the perfect little ’50’s virgin, is full of giggles and barely supressed lust as Kate’s more “demure” sister Bianca. John Ellison Conlee brings good humor to the role of Hortensio, one of Bianca’s many unsuccessful suitors. Alan Mendell and Tom Bloom aquit themselves well as Gremio, another unsuccessful suitor, and Bapista, hapless father to Kate and Bianca. I found Neil Huff as Lucentio and Kyle Fabel as Tranio a little too interchangeable as master and servant who swap roles in order to win Bianca.
This “Shrew” is really servants’ night out. Sam Breslin Wright as Lucentio’s servant Biondello does a star turn in Act III, scene ii as he announces Petruchio’s arrival at the church for his wedding to Kate. And David Aaron Baker is a hoot as Grumio, Petruchio’s servant, whether he is dressed as Elvis or romancing a dressmaker’s dummy.
“The Taming of the Shrew” is a controversial play to stage nowadays because it is apparently so full of machismo and mysogyny. The idea of “taming” a woman by what we would now recognize as standard brainwashing techiniques and abuse, does not really fly with modern audiences. While remaining true to the script (yes, Neuwirth does deliver all of Kate’s speech about the “true obedience” owed a husband at the end of Act V) Rees and Neuwirth have developed a dynamic between them that downplays the abuse and highlights the true love and happiness Kate and Petruchio find together. Kate is “tamed” not by intimidation, but by love. Her “shrewishness” is shown to be a by-product of her loneliness, her feelings of being unloved and unlovable. Once she finds love and acceptance for who she is, then she can become what she was unable to be – a trusting, caring woman.
Shakespeare (or whoever else wrote this) framed “Shrew” as a play within a play performed for one Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker. Rees himself plays Sly, and presents the play as merely Sly’s dream while drugged into cooperation by a host of men in little white coats who have come to take him away. I will not tell you how Neuwirth fits in to the bookends of the evening, but suffice it to say that her closing line (not Shakespeare’s) says it all and puts yet another spin on the “taming” tale.
Understanding this production as a dream is important to Rees’ directorial concept, which the set ably abetts. The play happens nowhere and everywhere. Despite the vastness of the stage area, quarters are sometimes inexplicably cramped. Petruchio’s house seems to be staffed by a sheep-like herd of welders. Stranger things have happened in dreams, especially drug induced ones.
“The Taming of the Shew” runs through July 18 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999