Hating To Love "Taming Of The Shrew"
Luckily, San Diego’s Old Globe is running a truly astonishing production right now that no one should miss.
But be warned: This is not the light-hearted stuff of bowdlerized Hollywood fare, with charming bad boys wooing self-righteous brats for kicks. Of course, we get all that in “Shrew,” but Shakespeare swam in a different sea, stormed-tossed and unnavigable. “Shrew” takes our breath away, but not with any notions of high romance. It’s one big tidal wave of woman-hatred and the outward pettiness of love.
Consider the plot: Petruchio (Jonno Roberts) schemes up inhuman machinations to turn the strong-willed, sharp-witted Katherine (Emily Swallow) into his obsequious love-object. Don’t expect Romeo-and-Juliet balcony scenes under soft moonlight here; instead, think freezing castle dungeons and starving maidens.
We might expect, then, that the central romance between Katherine and Petruchio, the “shrew” and her tamer, would be ugly, unpalatable and patently romance-less (certainly some productions take this route). But the miracle of the Old Globe’s production, directed by Rob Daniels, is to read — correctly or not — a true love story into this shocking portrait of misogyny.
The success of this reading is owed in no small part to the talent of Daniels’ two madly mated principals. When they first meet, there is real chemistry between them, even if Shakespeare didn’t intend there to be. Katherine, a master rhetorician, is won over by Petruchio’s wit and words. He is her equal. Of course, the tragedy is that, by the end, she is in every way his inferior.
Swallow, physically striking in Deirdre Clancy’s stunning “period” costumes, is less the she-devil of townfolk lore than a devil-may-care young woman with a sharp tongue and a nasty uppercut. She is perfectly balanced by Roberts’ macho Petruchio, whose charisma and charm make it hard to stay mad at him, even though we should be seething throughout.
Once Petruchio “wives” Katherine, in one of the play’s rowdiest scenes, her sister Bianca (a pleasant Bree Welch) is finally free to marry. The subplot involving her many suitors provides welcome comedic relief to the troubling aspects of Katherine’s “taming.”
There isn’t a single weak link in the whole cast — a feat for any production and a miracle for Shakespeare. Jay Whittaker’s lovestruck Lucentio, who wins Bianca’s heart, is over-rambunctious at first, but his declamation of “I burn, I pine, I perish” is priceless. Joseph Marcell’s elegant Gremio, Bianca eldest suitor, is a treat, as is Adrian Sparks as Katherine and Bianca’s father. Michael Stewart Allen and Bruce Turk do great comedic work as two very different kinds of servants.
Scenically, the production is pretty bare, employing only a table, benches and a big neon sign. Christopher R. Walker’s original music lets scene transitions breathe and fits in well with the action.
The introductory and concluding movement sequences by the ensemble (Tony Caligagan choreographed) are mostly fun but thematically insignificant. Horse body-puppets are rarely a good idea. Much funnier are the performer’s ad-libbed interactions with the audience.
The first act is nearly perfect; the start of the second drags a little. But not enough can be said of Swallow and Roberts, who revolutionize their parts in refreshing and wonderfully problematic ways. Once the play ends, with Katherine and Petruchio kissing passionately upstage, there is a sense of total satisfaction, and not a little guilt, because we are rejoicing in a match made both in heaven and in hell.
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