By Richard Ades
There are two Shakespeare plays that are hard sells because they’re based on outmoded mores. Of these, the more difficult is The Merchant of Venice, not so much because it has a Jewish villain but because its punishment for his villainy is to force him to convert to Christianity.
If Shakespeare were alive today, I’d sure he’d long since have had an Exodus International-style change of heart and issued an apology.
The other tough sell is The Taming of the Shrew, but after seeing the play twice in the past year, I suspect it may be due for a partial reprieve. The comedy is as patriarchal and sexist as ever, but if it’s done with heart and sensitivity, viewers might be able to overlook its dated viewpoint.
Admittedly, I first came to this conclusion after seeing it performed at London’s Globe Theatre, where I joined the other “groundlings” standing at the foot of the stage. Not only was the production a witty delight, garnering the biggest laughs of any Shakespearean outing I’d ever seen, but the theater’s 16th-century design might have made it easier to dip one’s mental toes into the mindset of the Bard’s era.
Still, you don’t have to go to the Globe to appreciate Shrew. If it’s been reprieved, the probable reason is simply that women’s place in the world has changed.
When a character declares that wives owe their husbands obedience because the men are the ones who go out and earn a living, we know she’s talking about a time that’s safely in the past. For most of us living in 21st-century America, the play’s sexism is too anachronistic to be threatening.
As I said, the comedy still must be performed with heart and sensitivity in order to work. New Players Theater’s current production, directed by Jocelyn Wiebe, is not perfect. But it does get the all-important relationship between Katherina (the “shrew”) and Petruchio (her would-be “tamer”) exactly right.
The situation: Baptista (Scott Willis), a rich resident of Padua, Italy, has two daughters of marriageable age. The gentle Bianca (Erin Mellon) has several suitors, but Baptista insists that her older sister, Kate (Amanda Cawthorne), must be married first. Trouble is, Kate’s mercurial temper scares off all prospective husbands.
Enter Petruchio (Tim Browning), who’s in search of a rich wife and insists that he can mold Kate into a devoted spouse. With help from his long-suffering servant, Grumio (Todd Covert), he sets out to do just that by adopting a plan of action that convinces her and everyone else that he’s outlandishly eccentric and possibly insane.
What makes all this palatable is that Browning portrays Petruchio as manipulative but never disrespectful toward Kate, while Cawthorne portrays Kate as ill-tempered but never undignified. Besides, we can’t help suspecting that these two fiery spirits are well-suited to each other.
A subplot involving Bianca’s suitors is marked by the typical Shakespearean disguises. Both Lucentio (Austin Andres) and Hortensio (Matthew Moore) pretend to be tutors in order to gain alone time with her (a goal that will resonate with fans of The Bachelorette), while Lucentio’s servant Tranio (Clifton Holznagel) masquerades as his master. The ruses are good for a few laughs, but the funniest suitor of all, thanks to Miles Drake’s crusty portrayal, is the doddering Gremio.
Mellon’s Bianca seems a tad too shallow to justify all the attention she receives, but the acting in the subplot is mostly on-target. Unfortunately, this part of the play is weakened by hackneyed bits of slapstick accompanied by overbearing sound effects (“Boing!”) and musical flourishes (“Whah, whah, whah, whah”). To be sure, slapstick has a place in Shakespeare, but it should serve the plot rather than acting as an over-the-top distraction.
Director Wiebe seems to set the tale somewhere in the mid-20th century, judging from the recorded musical accompaniment and Natalie Cagle’s costume designs. Again, the music is sometimes overbearing, but the costumes are distinctive and attractive. Alas, none is as daring as the ass-less outfit Petruchio wore to his wedding at the Globe, but that approach probably would have gotten the troupe thrown out of Hilliard.
And that would have been a shame. Despite its outdated attitudes, The Taming of the Shrew remains a clever and entertaining take on the war between the sexes.
New Players Theater will present The Taming of the Shrew through July 21 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind the Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. June 20-23 and 30, and July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. (Henry IV, Part One will be presented at 8 p.m. June 27-29, July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28.) Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. “Premium reserved seats” are available with paid reservations; otherwise, bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-874-6783 or newplayers.org.