After centuries of painstaking refinement, shrew taming finally went out of style in the Western world in the late '60s. The feminist movement convinced most men and women that such behavior was barbaric. It's still practiced in some quarters, of course, but only by smelly miscreants and losers.
A new production of William Shakespeare's classic play on the subject is currently being staged by the Fusion Theatre Company at the Cell Theatre. Director Fred Franklin has ingeniously set the play in the '50s during the tail end of the Golden Age of Shrew Taming. The results are a doo-woppin', bobby sockin', poodle skirtin' laugh riot that will amaze and amuse even those weirdoes who claim indifference to Shakespeare.
As is typical of big bad Bill's comedies, the plot is intricate. In Franklin's version, a bunch of frat boys find a drunk passed out on the sidewalk and decide to play a prank on him. They take him home, dress him up in nice clothes and convince him that he's been insane for the last few years and is actually a prosperous, married man. Bizarrely, the frat boys then stage a play for him. That play within a play serves as the main story in The Taming of the Shrew.
In the play, a rich young man named Lucentio (Matt Andrade) arrives in the Italian city of Padua in the company of his two servants. Lucentio immediately falls in love with a pretty, well-mannered but vapid young woman named Bianca (Rebecca Gibel). He wants to marry her but he can't because her father, Baptista (John Hardman), refuses to marry her off until he can find a suitable husband for Bianca's elder sister, the less pretty, less well-mannered and decidedly less vapid Katherina (Jacqueline Reid). Lucentio's second problem is that two other suitors are eagerly trying to finagle their way into Bianca's poodle skirt as well.
Katherina (Jacqueline Reid) is the shrew of the title, and she is—let's be blunt—a raging bitch. She gets an enormous amount of pleasure out of harassing, insulting and humiliating everyone around her. Every potential suitor runs screaming after spending two minutes in the same room with her. She's not, to put it lightly, marriage material.
Thankfully, Petruccio (Vic Browder) soon arrives on the scene from Verona in search of a wife. He says he doesn't care who he marries as long as she's rich. After hearing about Katherina—who happens to be stinking filthy rich—he decides she's the one for him. They meet and engage in a furious battle of words. At the end of it, against all odds, Petruccio somehow manages to arrange for their wedding.
The rest of the play focuses on the actual taming. Even given Katherina's undeniable bitchiness, this is pretty harsh (but funny) stuff. Petruccio refers to her as his property. To prove his love, he refuses to let her eat his "inferior" food and won't let her sleep in his substandard bed. He makes her say that the sun is the moon and the moon is the sun. He forces her to agree that an old man is really a young girl. In other words, he humiliates her into submission. The play ends with Katherina giving a famous speech about how important it is for a wife to treat her husband as her lord and master.
Yikes! What would Gloria Steinem say?
As they've proven over and over again in the past, the Fusion Theatre Company knows how to put on a great show, and this is one of their best. The fingerprints of a great director are smeared over every inch of it. Kudos to Fred Franklin for combining an innovative set with a black and white slide show, killer music and truly inspired choreography into one of the best Shakespeare stagings I've seen in years. Radical innovation is integrated into almost every scene. To take one particularly memorable example, Franklin transforms the crusty old man who disguises himself as Lucentio's father near the end of the play into Marilyn Monroe (sic), played to delicious, giggly, bubble-headed perfection by Gibel. Franklin also brings in Elvis and Superman for some improbable but incredibly funny cameos.
This cast is fantastic. Browder injects enormous bombast, style and intelligence into the role of Petruccio. Keith Richard Chamberlain turns in a hilarious performance as Tranio, Lucentio's versatile servant. John Hardman is equally hilarious as the stuffy patriarch Baptista. Angela Littleton does some great bits as Petruccio's servant Grumio.
The toughest role, of course, is Katherina, and Jacqueline Reid really does some sensational shrewing here. She brings all the necessary wit and bite to the character, showing exactly why she's had to wait so long to find her intellectual equal in Petruccio. If you just consider the text on its own, The Taming of the Shrew might seem deeply misogynistic. Reid's Katherina makes it clear, though, that she may be willing to change her behavior for the sake of a happy marriage, but she will never be a sniveling submissive. She's no longer a shrew, but she won't be a doormat either.