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The Taming of the Shrew

A Shrewd View from Inside the Shrew

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, January 17, 2015, C–6&7 (center stalls)
Actor's Renaissance Season

If you think you know this play, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, then you need to see the American Shakespeare Center's current take on it. Not because they take wild liberties with the play, nor that they bring some new grand vision to it. Rather, the opposite: They hew to Shakespeare's text (with minor cuts for length) and use Elizabethan production techniques in staging it. Thus, the inconsistencies of the young playwright's early work (I believe his earliest work) become blaringly obvious, and we see the choices the actors make in the face of those inconsistencies and a script that some believe hasn’t aged well—choices that reflect personally profound understandings of this controversial play.

Kate in Victorian black dress with red streaks and red and blue braids scowls while in blurry background stands Petruchio in black vest and white shirt
Katherina (Allison Glenzer) reacts to a dig from Petruchio (Christopher Seiler, background) in the American Shakespeare Center's production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Below, the couple is on much better terms at the end of the play as Baptista (René Thornton Jr.) watches. Photos by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

Is The Taming of the Shrew misogynist? I’ve addressed that at length in other reviews and my commentary, On Taming Shrews—Who Is the Misogynist Monster: Petruchio, Shakespeare, or You? This essay focuses strictly on the staging of the ASC’s current version playing at the Blackfriars Playhouse, a replica of Shakespeare’s own indoor theater with a thrust stage and audience seating all around, including on the stage itself (the gallant stools). With this space, the ASC is dedicated to staging text-centric productions with Jacobean technology: no sets and no electronic effects while using universal lighting and engaging in direct audience interaction. Yet, as in Shakespeare's time, the theater company performs contemporary music before and during the play and is not bound to Renaissance-era costuming.

The Taming of the Shrew kicks off this year’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, which takes the notion of “Jacobean staging conditions” to extremes. A troupe of 12 actors mounts a five-play repertory without directors or a design team; the actors are responsible for their own costumes and props while working out blocking and thematic matters on their own. Using only cue scripts, the company gets only about 50 hours of rehearsal time—a week’s worth—before presenting the play to the public (sometimes, previews are the first full run-through). This, scholars believe, is the manner in which Elizabethan and Jacobean acting companies put on so many plays in London’s theaters, constantly giving audiences something new to see while keeping the most popular plays in ready repertory.

While it’s a scholastic approach to staging works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it results in anything but a musty, archaic rendition of their plays. ASC’s actors are so well trained in verse speaking and working the Blackfriars space that their performances are excitingly accessible. As the plays are presented in the manner for which they were written, they come across with an electric charge you rarely get in well-studied, well-practiced, fourth-wall-maintaining, conceptual productions. Plus, the actors are running the show: the asylum has been turned inside out.

This is especially obvious in The Taming of the Shrew’s costumes, which the actors scavenge from the ASC’s wardrobe storage or their own closets. Allison Glenzer’s Katherina, the titular shrew, wears a nouveau gothic-style black dress with high-top black tennis shoes. Her sister Bianca (Sara Hymes) is dressed as a Seussian counterpart in floral patterned, blue frilly dress with white stockings and calf-high, laced-up Victorian high-heeled boots. Katherina’s suitor and later husband Petruchio (Christopher Seiler), her father Baptista (René Thornton Jr.), and Petruchio’s friend and Bianca suitor Hortensio (Patrick Midgley) are dressed as American Old West gamblers in vests, cravats, and long coats, while Bianca’s other suitors, old Gremio (John Harrell) and young Lucentio (Nathan C. Crocker) and, after him his servant, Tranio (Bridget Rue), wear the clothes of Jacobean lords and merchants. As Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, Chris Johnston resembles a modern harlequin with aqua diamond-checked vest over polka-dot puffy shirt and giant clown shoes. The shoes add visual humor to fellow servant Curtis (Benjamin Reed) calling Grumio a “three-inch fool,” yet, like many of this cast’s costume choices, it’s just weird.

The hodge-podge, edgy costume choices also don't represent the production’s tone, either. This presentation takes the play’s comedy seriously, not as license to engage in silly slapstick or irony. Almost all of the laughs—and this production is full of them—are generated by the characters navigating the situations Shakespeare puts them through and by the actors’ line readings. When Baptista notes that “on Sunday next, you know my daughter Katherina is to be married,” Thornton breaks into a gleeful dance, a father celebrating his far-fetched hopes coming to fruition.

During the Ren Season, playing a line in such a manner ultimately is the choice of the individual actor. Though other actors may advise (and much respect usually courses through these ASC companies), the rehearsal timeline doesn’t allow for much debate, and ensemble scenes come together with a collaboration that requires egos to be set aside. In private conversation with cast members, I gained insight into the formation of one particularly singular moment in this production. At the end of the tailor scene, Petruchio—after his lovely speech to Katherina about the beauty of the mind being more important than exterior appearances (“What, is the jay more precious than the lark because his feathers are more beautiful?”)—commands that before he and Katherina depart for her father’s house to attend Bianca’s wedding, the time “shall be what o’clock I say it is.” Hortensio then speaks the scene’s last line: “Why, so this gallant will command the sun.” Is this an aside? Is Hortensio left alone on stage when he says it? And how does it jibe with the otherwise socially awkward Hortensio of the rest of the play? Many directors duck these questions by cutting the line, but this company is loath to excise any of Shakespeare’s scene-ending lines. So, in this performance, Seiler’s Petruchio storms out after his command, leaving a confounded Katherina on stage with Hortensio, and it was Midgley’s idea to speak the line to Katherina and then hold out his hand to her; Glenzer takes it and they walk off stage together.

The gesture seems unlikely for these two characters: This is the same Hortensio who insulted Katherina in the play’s opening scene and got a beating from her as a result. Furthermore, Hortensio is present in this scene only because he is attending “the taming school,” watching Petruchio at work on Katherina so that he can learn how to tame the Widow he intends to marry. Glenzer went along with this blocking out of a sense of teamwork more than textual reasoning, but she came to appreciate the deeper meaning that emerges in this moment, one of the production’s most touching (literally and figuratively). It becomes an important bridge as the socially awkward Hortensio reaches out to the socially scorned Kate, and she, at last, responds positively to a gesture of true empathy. Midgley’s gut feeling that theatrical effect often trumps textual logic is part of the Ren Season exploration of Shakespeare’s texts, and here it results in a significant thematic marker: We are seeing the first manifestation of the lessons Petruchio has been imparting to Katherina about respect and gratitude, and it happens behind his back and with Hortensio, of all people. It establishes a frame of mind in Katherina and a relationship with Hortensio that come into play in the upcoming sun and moon scene.

Glenzer, if not having to make the most choices in this production, shoulders the most important ones. On her rests the characterization of Katherina’s psychological makeup at the beginning of the play and her ultimate attitude toward Petruchio at the end. The key to the former comes in the wooing scene, which Glenzer and Seiler play as a sprint of wits, with razor-sharp timing and much physicality. It starts with Petruchio greeting her as Kate, “for that’s your name, I hear.” “Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing,” she responds: “They call me Katherina that do talk of me.” Her first point is an important one to Glenzer’s Katherina: she wants to be called by her rightful name, not a pet version of it. He, though, goes off on a litany of Kate names: “plain Kate, and bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst.” Watch Glenzer here. She dismisses these labels except the last, expressing wry appreciation for her reputation as “Kate the curst.”

While she’s intrigued by Petruchio—he’s certainly more interesting than the dotards Hortensio and Gremio—Glenzer’s Katherina doesn’t begin to admire him until the jay and lark speech. The realization of what he’s up to dawns on her in the sun and moon episode, though she concludes the interaction with a sly dig: “What you will have it named, even that it is, and so it shall be so for Katherina.” There’s a double meaning in that comment coming from Glenzer, but she enthusiastically joins in Petruchio’s prank on Vincentio as she begins to embrace her husband’s irreverent attitude. Love soon flows in behind admiration.

Glenzer's most significant choices come in the final scene and its famous speech on obedience. When Katherina arrives upon Petruchio’s bidding—thereby winning him the wager among the new husbands—Glenzer keeps her eye steadily on Seiler: Katherina knows there must be “some goodly jest in hand” and follows Petruchio’s lead. She’s wearing the cap Petruchio had denied her earlier, so when he orders her to throw it underfoot, she smiles at him, engaging in a private joke the rest of the gathering don’t get. When it’s time for her speech, Petruchio tells her to start with the Widow, and she does, but then Glenzer’s Katherina moves to her sister: “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled, muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty, and while it is so, none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.” Glenzer accompanies this sincere warning with a gesture of conciliation toward Hymes’ Bianca. Then Glenzer’s Katherina moves to her father. “When she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour, and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord?” she says, taking Baptista’s hand in a gesture of loving apology (the requited father’s expression on Thornton’s face will make you fathers cry). Glenzer then turns to the audience to finish the speech, a lesson not so much on wifely obedience but unconditional love for your partner of choice. “Why, there’s a wench,” Petruchio says, overcome with pride in his multidimensional wife. “Come on, and kiss me, Kate,” he says (OK, he’s still calling her Kate), and they kiss, cuing raucous applause in the audience.

It has become something of a tradition for Petruchio to fall in love with Katherina at first sight (at least that is the way every stage production I’ve seen play it). In Seiler’s portrayal, love, significantly, comes before he even meets her. After hearing how she “broke the lute” on Hortensio (here, instead of Hortensio coming on stage with a broken lute hanging around his neck, Midgley appears with a portion of the lute sticking out of his rear end), Petruchio says, “Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench. I love her ten times more than e’er I did. O, how I long to have some chat with her.” Seiler speaks this with such enthusiasm that we see he is not using the word love lightly. This is a man who later, in the jay and lark speech, opines that “’tis the mind that makes the body rich.” Love at first sight? Nah, Petruchio falls in love with Katherina’s mind at first report.

ASC’s Ren Season process, however, does lay bare the play’s inconsistencies. Petruchio could be manic or even bipolar, but yet it’s hard to corral for assessment his overall respect for Katherina while treating her like a falcon in training, or his endorsement of “peace, and love, and quiet life” in one line, and “awful rule and right supremacy” in the very next line. Leave it to an 11-year-old sitting near me to make the most obvious observation: after his soliloquy explaining how he will use falconry techniques to train Katherina, Petruchio asks the audience, “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, now let him speak,” and the boy muttered, "you can try being nice."

This play’s biggest inconsistencies concern Hortensio. Tranio reports that Hortensio has gone to “the taming school,” though Hortensio has just revealed his own disguise to the disguised Tranio and departs without mentioning anything about going to Petruchio’s house. How Tranio got that information is an obvious “huh?” Additionally, the fact that Hortensio sees how “the field is won” by Petruchio begs the question: why would he bet against Petruchio in the wager scene? Yet, while I’m asking this question in the final scene, the audience is totally into the unfolding events of that final scene, which plays with a near-constant laugh track.

That owes much to the ensemble quality of the troupe. Having seen most of the productions this company has mounted the past six years, I’ve come to appreciate how well ASC actors, among many other talents and brilliant interpretations, play a pack of bumbling servants. The scene in which Curtis and his fellow servants at Petruchio’s house try to appease their raging boss and his bewildered wife is worth seeing 12 times to catch all the stage action and fully appreciate how many egos have been left backstage. You also have to be keen-eyed to catch line readings by those not speaking them. When Lucentio is disguised as the schoolmaster while Tranio plays Lucentio, Baptista calls Lucentio’s father, Vincentio, “a mighty man of Pisa,” and Crocker’s real Lucentio puffs up in obvious pride.

Kate, in velvet-trimmed black dress and black hat with white plume, holds a pewter goblet as she leans back against a table looking over her shoulder at Petruchio, hand on his goblet on the table, leaning forward talking with her; visible between them in the background, sitting at the same table, is Baptista in silver vest, white shirt, and burgundy cravatIt is such subtleties that define this production’s superlative performances. He may be playing a secondary character—a stock character, at that—but Thornton gives Baptista incredible depth not only through his line readings but in his world-weary expressions. He knows he owes a father’s dutiful devotion to his daughters, and he earnestly does so for both, but he is just so flummoxed by Katherina. The other standout is Michael Amendola in two minor roles, the Pedant who pretends to be Vincentio in the Lucentio-Tranio-Bianca subplot, and Hortensio’s betrothed Widow in the last scene. Though looking something like a Lady Bracknell in Victorian costume, gray wig, and stern expression, Amendola bases his performance of the Widow on Hortensio’s report that she has “long loved” him. Thus, Amendola’s Widow is constantly clasping Hortensio’s hand or otherwise maintaining physical contact with her new husband—until he insults her by betting on her as she is about to rumble with Katharine.

Meanwhile, playing the Pedant, Amendola pulls off a three-part running joke that relies specifically on one of the peculiar staging conditions of the Ren Season: because the plays are mounted with such little rehearsal time, a prompter stands ready for line calls, which the actors request by saying “prithee.” How Amendola manipulates that service is part and parcel of the Blackfriars aesthete and the Ren Season’s modus operandi, fudging the line between theater and reality in a venue where there is no wall, allegorical or otherwise, between the play and the audience.

Typically, over the course of the play’s run the actors no longer need a prompter and vote him off their island, so Amendola’s joke might be short-lived. But that is just another reason you’ll want to see this production: sooner than later.

Eric Minton
January 23, 2015

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