How do you perform “The Taming of the Shrew” in a way that keeps modern audiences from rolling their eyes at the blatant sexism of the language?
Do you take it straight, letting the 400-year-old misogyny of a greedy father and a controlling suitor speak for itself?
Do you turn to irony, letting the supposedly shrewish Kate tell us one thing with her lips while giving the lie to subservience and obedience with her eyes and body language?
Do you re-imagine the story as a game between Petruchio and Kate, who find love and mutual respect in a private universe that bypasses society’s expectations? Can they reach a private marital equality that stays hidden from others?
Charlotte Shakespeare, which opened its eighth season Thursday outdoors on The Green, more or less takes the third path. It’s impossible to believe the intelligent, self-aware Kate of Meghan Lowther really expects to spend her married life placing her hand beneath the foot of Petruchio (J.R. Adduci). When she makes that offer at last, she knows he won’t accept. She has shed her “cursed” shrewish speech and thus deserves to be cherished.
But the sexism of a society that expects women to stay silent and be sold comes through clearly. Petruchio asserts at the beginning that he’s “come to wive it wealthily in Padua.” Kate’s father bluntly declares he’ll give his other daughter to whichever suitor promises her the most money. (She does make a love match, but with the richest claimant.) So Kate knows that, whatever she speaks in private, her public utterances must acknowledge her husband to be “her lord.”
Director Christian Casper makes this situation palatable to us by surrounding it with slapstick comedy. The western setting – Padua is now in the Arizona Territory in 1875 – fits the play surprisingly well.
Western music sets the mood as you place your blanket or chair on The Green: The theme from “Rawhide,” with its cracking whips, seems especially apt. These suitors and women belong on the frontier as much as in Renaissance Italy, and the sight gags work: The line “Methinks you walk like a stranger” gets nervous townsfolk reaching for their guns.
Casper has made good use of the park, though the sound sometimes cuts out when characters wander too far afield. (Most of the time, it’s fine.) People seem to be dashing in or out of scenes, and the movement sometimes approaches farce: Bola Ande, who plays two servants, stays just on the right side of breathlessness.
All the supporting performances are juiced-up – literally so, in the case of Bill Boyd’s drunken pedant in Act 2 – but never so exaggerated that they pall. Bill McNeff, who plays the baffled suitor Gremio, even tests out an Italian accent as a weepy tailor and pulls it off.
Lowther, on the other hand, is dead serious: forthright in her anger (which is often justified by cruel treatment) and smart enough to see that compliance with Petruchio is her only option. (And, perhaps, a path to something more satisfying later with her husband.)
Adduci’s Petruchio, swaggerin’ and spittin’, teases the audience as much as he does Kate. He gives us hints that his whimsical behavior is a sham, but other characters never see that. Until the last scene, nobody’s sure if he and Kate can stay in a marriage that works, but we all get the answer at last.
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