NEW YORK—Few of Shakespeare’s plays are as problematic in modern times as the comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” now being staged by The Public Theater in Central Park. The problems are due to the work’s underlying themes regarding women. Indeed, the program notes from The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, explain his misgivings about the piece. Though Eustis expresses great faith in Director Phyllida Lloyd and her all-female production, her vision ultimately falls short.
In Padua, Italy, Bianca (Gayle Rankin), the beautiful younger daughter of the wealthy Baptista (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), is beset by multiple suitors. Baptista, though, will not allow Bianca to wed until his elder daughter Katherina (Cush Jumbo) is first married.
But this decision presents something of a problem. Katherina has a rather violent disposition, plus a distaste for most men in general as well as the institution of marriage.
Enter Petruchio (Janet McTeer), a fellow more than a bit full of himself, with a fondness for drink. He has journeyed to Padua to find a rich wife. Hearing about Katherina, he quickly presents himself to Baptista, despite multiple warnings from others regarding her temperament.
Not surprisingly, Katherina spits, screams, and rebuffs Petruchio’s initial advances, but in the end finds herself basically forced to marry him. Her father has convinced himself—with quite a little prompting—that both sides want the match. He is also the one male Katherina obeys.
Meanwhile, Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore), a traveler from Pisa, has fallen in love with Bianca and hatches a plan to get close to her. Having his servant Tranio (Adrienne C. Moore) assume his identity, Lucentio disguises himself as a tutor who, with Tranio’s help, is hired by Baptista to educate Bianca in music and mathematics.
The subplot with Bianca is played mainly as a romantic comedy, with elements of mismatched suitors and mistaken identity. However, it is the Katherina/Petruchio storyline that takes center stage.
And here is where the problems arise—in particular, in the interplay between the two characters after Petruchio has taken Katherina away.
Petruchio plans to control Katherina by first killing her with kindness. That is, he denies her any taste of food because it is not prepared properly, and he prevents her sleeping due to some fault with the sheets.
Eventually, the reasoning goes, she’ll be so worn down that she’ll agree to anything he says—such as saying that the orb in the sky is the sun when it is in fact the moon—in order to find some peace. It’s a method that can be used to great comedic effect or played as deep psychological abuse.
The former is clearly the intent of both the playwright and the director. But to make the production work properly (at least in these modern times), it is necessary to allow the actors to work between the lines and have their characters arrive at a place of mutual respect.
We need to see an equality of the sexes, if you will, and not the almost master-servant relationship shown here. It’s as if the production is missing the idea that both characters ultimately understand the premise behind their actions.
The lack of insight is painfully true of Petruchio, who can be particularly lacking in sympathy. For example, some of McTeer’s actions, such as Petruchio grabbing his crotch, or throwing up at his wedding, are a bit much.
More serious problems are found in the prologue and epilogue. Originally, Shakespeare gave the story a play-within-a-play framework to allow audiences to see that what follows is basically a fantasy.
Instead, Lloyd has inserted a beauty pageant complete with contestants, baton twirling, and a satire on Donald Trump. The idea is to show how ridiculous the entire process is, as it is all the product of male desire.
This tactic may be fine for making a political statement, but one cannot shake the feeling that both Lloyd and Eustis are apologizing for the play they’re presenting.
Despite these problems, Lloyd’s use of an all-female cast works well. There’s even a break in the action when one of the characters (Judy Gold) complains about the show being done with an all-women cast.
McTeer and Jumbo do a great job with their respective roles. Neither character is one you’d particularly want to spend time with, but each is fascinating to watch. The actresses play off each other well, engaging in a battle of wills that takes place on numerous levels.
Moore has great fun as Tranio when disguised as Lucentio, and Candy Buckley does a good turn as Lucentio’s father who turns up unexpectedly, causing mass confusion at the worst possible time.
Kudos go to costume and set designer Mark Thompson and hair and wig designer Leah J. Loukas.
An interesting effort, this production comes off as far too hung up on its subject matter to be completely effective.
Also in the cast are Donna Lynne Champlin, Teresa Avia Lim, Stacey Sergeant, Anne L. Nathan, Leenya Rideout, Pearl Rhein, Jackie Sanders, and Natalie Woolams-Torres.
‘The Taming of the Shrew’
Central Park, enter at 81st Street & Central Park West
Running Time: 2 hours (no intermission)
Closes: June 26
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com