Dallas — There is little doubt that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a problem play, especially for today’s audiences. Some modern productions have tried to get around this by changing the genders of the characters (all female cast, all male cast). Others have tried to soften it by placing it during an Irish Rebellion, the environment partly excusing the characters’ action or putting it opposite another play that attempts to directly combat the misogyny of Taming.
First time director Jenni Stewart uses a just a pinch of such tactics (successfully), but leaves plenty of room for the language and the actors to guide us through Shakespeare Dallas’ production, running through July 13.
Deftly opening the play with a nod towards both the Christopher Sly subplot (almost always entirely ignored by directors) and the early 20th century American suffragette movement is a well-performed scene of a staged silent film with music (choreography by Sara J. Romersberger). This scene fills the need for some emotional resonance with “the shrew,” Katherine (Nicole Berastequi). The suffragette movement isn’t picked up at any other point in the play (overtly), but the ploy allows the audience the space to frame the initial set pieces before investing in any characters as hero or villain.
Katherine’s “tamer,” the recently inherited Veronese Petruchio (Chris Hury), is usually singled out for his chauvinist behavior. But less so the patriarchal exhibition of Katherine’s father (Michael Johnson) or the insipidity (yet wonderfully comic) exhibition of the suitors, attempting to woo Katherine’s younger sister Bianca (Natalie Young). These male characters, Hortensio (Marcus Stimac), Gremio (Ben Bryant) and Lucentio (Robert Gamaelich) are usually ignored or at least glossed over when addressing the moral argument. Their embarrassments throughout the play and subtle yet public emasculation at the end is a key ingredient in understanding the layers displayed by Shakespeare and this company’s production.
And the root of the problem in the “problem play” is understanding the character of Katherine. When we first meet her she is all but being sold on the auction block by her father. Then when she’s alone with Bianca, she has bound her younger sister’s hands and demands to know her preference between the suitors. When Bianca begins to break down, Kat slaps her.
When Petruchio begins to woo Katherine, he tries to use his wit to play mind games with her. The scene is notable in its obtuseness. Kate is (understandably) combative, but Petruchio ignores her insults and with (admittedly lascivious) wit attempts to woo her. But when Kate feels she’s losing ground in this battle, she strikes him.
Note the similarity between these two scenes. When Bianca will not admit her preference, Kate uses violence against her. When Petruchio ignores Kate’s combativeness and woos her as if she is a delicate flower, she strikes him. However Petruchio doesn’t change his approach verbally, but in this staging does change it physically: Petruchio now begins to attempt to subdue Kate physically rather than verbally. Not what you would call “violently,” but not “gently” either. But something more than being physically restrained happens to Kate and Petruchio in this scene. She still has her rage and her frustration, but there’s something else here too. Perhaps Petruchio is aroused by meeting the first women that will not meekly submit to the patriarchal world around her. Perhaps Kate is thrown off balance by the first man she meets that is not put off by her temper.
This dynamic is admittedly confusing, and Ms. Berastequi and Mr. Hury play it enchantingly. I say “enchantingly” with purpose, because there is some kind of spell working here. A layer over reality that we’re are seeing but an instinct that something else is working underneath. James Baldwin once wrote “love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within." Is Katherine’s roughness and Petruchio’s (note: petrus means rock in Latin) stubbornness some kind of mask hiding something underneath? Here lies some of the great beauty of this play. The best acting expresses emotion, but just below the surface. This play allows actors of the quality of Ms. Berastequi and Mr. Hury to give us just that.
Outside of the Katherine/Petruchio dynamic, the rest of the play is pure Shakespearean comedy. The Pisan nobleman Lucentio (Robert Gamaelich) swaps identity with his servant Tranio (Clay Wheeler) in order to woo Bianca as her tutor. Mr. Wheeler is exceptional as a fake nobleman, his affectations mocking the very concept.
Lucentio isn’t the only one with this idea however, as Marcus Stimac’s Hortensio takes the same approach and we are treated to a terrific farce of these two gentlemen competing for Bianca. Gamealich (noted for his gifts in the physical line) delivers again and parallels Mr. Wheeler’s affectations as a faux “serious tutor” while Mr. Stimac (co-starring a Magnum P.I. style mustache) adds to his long list of demonstrable talents with an accordion scene opposite Gamaelich and Young that brought the house down.
Markedly adding to the comedy is Ben Bryant’s Gremio. Mr. Bryant not only convincingly plays a man decades older than himself, but his timing and delivery punctuate his characters several memorable one-liners. Further, one of the funniest moments in the play is Michael Johnson’s Baptista calmly sipping his champagne during the wedding reception of his older daughter when Petruchio throws Katherine over his shoulder and carries her unwillingly away.
All of this to say that this play has depths and riddles that can’t be explained or dismissed with broad brush strokes. As Matthew Arnold writes, “Shakespeare, Shakespeare, you are as obscure as life is!” It is partly these obscurities that enchants us and Shakespeare Dallas plumbs them for all they are worth.
The Taming of the Shrew runs in repertory with The Comedy of Errors. Below is the schedule:
- The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. Runs Saturdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays at 8:15 p.m. through July 15
- The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Run Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8:15 p.m. through July 13
- Junior Players presents Romeo and Juliet June 24-29
- Mondays are dark