Fort Worth — Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, although roundly beloved in many circles for its farcical and physical comedy elements, has become more and more difficult to enjoy because of its unapologetic depictions of patriarchal dominance and feminine subservience. Over the years, directors have challenged the play’s antifeminist themes by using modern dress, casting women in all the roles, or by having Kate deliver her last “serve, love, and obey” speech as still defiant.
However, an even earlier antidote for all of this lady bashing existed in the Bard’s time: John Fletcher’s play The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed. Fletcher’s work, using many of the same characters in Shrew, turns the tables on the men, and provides an apt sequel.
The prolific Fletcher was not only Shakespeare’s also-famous contemporary (at least at the time), but his frequent collaborator as well. They co-wrote Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play Cardenio.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild explores this duo of plays in its festival: “The Battle of the Sexes.” Longtime SSG vets Jason and Lauren Morgan direct both plays in a straightforward and traditional manner keeping period settings and costumes to highlight the language and their actors’ performances. In another hallmark of SSG’s commitment to classic theater, the ensemble is strong, balanced, and passionate.
Intact is Shrew’s well-trod plot of a sister and daughter, Katherine (Felicia Berch) tamed by the opportunistic Petruchio (Robert Gemaehlich) so that her younger sister, the fair Bianca (a winsome Shannon Garcia) might be allowed to wed.
There is a palpable chemistry between the combating Katherine and Petruchio that only intensifies as the wildcat Kate begins to soften (more than simply acquiescing) under her new husband’s control. Kudos to the Morgans for allowing Petruchio’s behavior to be more instructive rather than cruel. That being said, it’s still a bit unsettling to watch some of the man’s gaslighting mental abuse of his wife.
Gemaehlich and Berch’s performances are stellar. Berch plays the “cursed Katherine” as an impatient firecracker, but with some impressive Lucille Ball-esque comedy. I especially liked her put-upon Grumpy Cat frowns. Gemaehlich, who is there to “wive and thrive,” is a swaggering, suave customer who controls all his scenes.
The Tamer Tamed follows the events after Kate’s death. Petruchio (a stalwart Andrew Manning) remarries, and now it is his new wife, Maria’s (Karen Matheny) turn to tame. She refuses to consummate the marriage until her demands are met. She ropes in other women from the town in her abstention vow, hearkening to the plot of Aristophanes’ antiwar play Lysistrata.
Much like Shrew, Tamer exults in its bawdy wordplay (much of it lost on modern ears) and knockabout sensibilities while pursuing a circuitous plot filled with hasty exits and entrances, and the obligatory cross-dressing shenanigans.
The Morgans keep things snappy (a sub two-hour run time with intermission helps), and the cast is more than up to the task of translating an unfamiliar play inferior to its Shakespearean inspiration. They also benefit from Jason Morgan’s set (for both plays) of Italian arches and balconies, and Lauren Morgan’s opulent costume design.
The comedy (some of it inherent, most of it due to outstanding performances) and the charm propel the show. The drunken, girly gauntlet of comeuppance for the men is a particularly enjoyable sequence.
Most of actors have switched roles between the plays. We have a new Petruchio, Bianca (Samantha Snow), and Hortensio (Gemaehlich). Matheny stands out—and holds out—as Maria. She is a picture of mirthful strength and charisma. Jessica Taylor shines as Livia, who avoids the much older, lips-smacking and saucy Gremio (a venerable Delmar H. Dolbier who slays in both plays), called “Moroso” in the original.
Two actors who really bring it in small roles are Garcia as Country Wench in Tamer, and Kelley Garland as Biondello in Shrew and Pedro in Tamer. Garcia reveals the play’s sass in her expressions alone, and Garland does not fail to please every time he enters a scene.
I had only read Fletcher’s rarely performed play before, but now I am convinced that they should be produced in tandem. It is okay to love The Taming of the Shrew even more now if it is tamed by The Tamer Tamed.