A Boisterous Production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Baruch

Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is a difficult play to present effectively and the production presented by Baruch Performing Arts Center and TGW Acting Studio and directed by Thomas G. Waites is uneven.

The play begins with a sort of prologue in which a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly (Joshua Walter) is tricked into believing, when he awakes from his stupor, that he is a married nobleman. Thus, the following story of Petruchio (Michael Moss) and Kate (Elissa Klie) becomes a play within a play. However, Sly doesn’t return at the end and so it’s unclear what the playwright intended by the first scene. (With all due respect to the Bard, I have always felt that the musical comedy version, “Kiss Me Kate” with a script by Sam and Bella Spivack and brilliant songs by Cole Porter is a vast improvement. There, the framing device is that the actors playing Petruchio and Kate are squabbling ex-spouses, which makes more sense than Shakespeare’s opening scene.)

The Petruchio/Kate story begins with Lucentio (Isaac Allen Miller) and his servant Tranio (Cedric Allen Hills), who have traveled to Padua from Florence. They come upon Baptista Minola (Alexandra Montgomery), his daughters Katherine and Bianca (Elissa Klie), and two would-be suitors of Bianca, Gremio (James Luse) and Hortensio (Bryan Russo). Minola decrees that no one can court Bianca until her older sister is married. The men perceive this as a problem because Kate has a reputation for being difficult. Lucentio decides to secretly woo Bianca by pretending to be her teacher and have Tranio assume his identity.

Soon afterward, Petruchio arrives from Verona with his servant Grumio (Ilaria Malvezzi). Petruchio is looking for a wealthy wife and sets his sights on Kate, despite warnings about her troublesome behavior.

Kate resents her younger sister and attacks her. After they leave, the men arrive. Petruchio arranges to receive a dowry from Minola once he convinces Kate to marry him.

Petruchio and Kate meet in screwball comedy fashion, trading insults. Petruchio nevertheless announces that they will be married on the following Sunday. Kate goes along with this and on the projected date is clearly disappointed that her fiancé doesn’t appear on time. He finally shows up, inappropriately attired but after the ceremony, he makes her miss the wedding reception. Then, back at their home, he denies her food and sleep.

Petruchio proves that he has fully tamed Kate by winning a bet in which he and the other men call their wives. Kate is the only one to obey her husband, proving that he has tamed the shrew.

Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom has taken the position that Petruchio and Kate are a happily married couple and that she is really the one wearing the pants in the family. I am not convinced. Petruchio’s treatment of his bride reminds me more of the husband in “Gaslight” trying to drive his wife crazy. Also, he makes it clear at the outset that he is a fortune hunter.

In any event, this production has its pluses and minuses. Waites’ direction is over-intrusive with the entire cast gesturing with every sentence. The effect is like watching a puppet drama in which the strings are visible. Also, some of the humor is more vulgar than Shakespeare (who could be pretty earthy) intended.  

The two leads (Moss and Klie) are very likeable. They are able to handle the language gracefully and are convincing as a romantic pair (even if he is forced to wear a silly wig). However, some of the others do not fare as well. It’s unclear why Baptista and Grumio are played by women since the parts were written for men. (The Globe’s productions last season had males playing female parts but that is the way the plays were performed in Shakespeare’s time.) Montgomery, though, is a pleasure to listen to.  Malvezzi displays her skill as a comic dancer but her thick Italian accent makes many of her lines incomprehensible.  The chamber musicians were a nice touch. While I have reservations about the play and the production, I note that others in the audience were laughing more than I was.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is running Thursdays- Sundays through August 3 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center’s Rose Nagelberg Theater (55 Lexington Avenue @ 25th Street, entrance between 3rd and Lexington Avenues).