The setup: In my old, crumbly Folger Library The Taming of the Shrew that I grabbed for a quarter to get through school, there's an introductory essay about how William Shakespeare never meant to suggest that enhanced coercive techniques such as food and sleep deprivation, manufactured cognitive dissonance, and the type of bargaining one might engage in with a toddler ("Well, since you've chosen to be ornery, I guess we aren't going anywhere") are a therapeutic way to approach an adult who's relationship-phobic to the point of physical aggression and screaming (BTW, that's a "shrew")-- let alone someone you love and wish to marry.
The main plot of Shrew makes little sense (nobody changes that much in just a few days). In addition, though, the editors advance the idea that while the action does, on its face, rankle some people of polite sensibilities, it was intended to be a farcical comedy, not a play about regular people.
See also: Southwest Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona Brings Rampant 16th-Century Sexism to Mesa
Shrew is one of the Bard's most popular scripts. Much depends on the chemistry between Kate and Petruchio, the "battling" characters who eventually show the most promise of a happy and equitable union.
A lot of theater people will say that the nuances imposed by the actress and director on Kate's speech near the end, in which she advises wives to be nice to hardworking husbands who love and care for them (which would seem sensible if you weren't afraid she's delivering it in the throes of PTSD), constitute the linchpin on which the tone of whole thing turns. In particular, her admonition to
. . . place your hands below your husband's foot: In token of which duty, if he please, My hand is ready; may it do him ease.
can spur the subsequent action in any number of directions -- some slapstick, some conciliatory, some as embarrassing as a typical wedding-cake-cutting video.
But Southwest Shakespeare Company's current production shows that bringing subtlety and playfulness to the table much earlier, before the lovers even meet, makes the about-face not only easier to swallow but more entertaining and, dare I say, enlightening.
The execution: The easiest choices to get through Shrew with your human-rights conscience intact include the following:
- have Kate stay the same but for acquiring some fondness for Petruchio, presumably because his fierce spirit convinces her that they have a lot in common, because it turns out he's really good in bed (offstage), or some combination of the two. Thus she's somewhat nasty and sarcastic to others at the end but has achieved a good-natured balance with Petruchio, as one would with a respected opponent.
- have Petruchio be mildly transformed by his surprise at discovering that Kate's beauty and her desire to preserve her identity and independence touch his heart, so that he becomes genuinely loving to her while keeping up the firm, macho façade.
- leave the success of the union somewhat unresolved for any number of reasons, a couple of the most popular being that Kate is so exhausted that she behaves -- for now -- or that the pair enjoy their friction so much that they might go on like that for years. Like Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.
That kind of resolution can get you out of the theater without despairing, at least, at how recently women all over the planet were considered property and our wishes and plans for our own lives were entirely disregarded. (Now it's merely in large parts of the world that we're still working on it.) Kate's father, Baptista, even insists that if and when his daughters marry, it will be to men they love, and not all dads in Shakespeare are that understanding.
But it does the script and the characters a disservice to make it that simple, and even actors and audiences wind up feeling a little weirded out. After feeling kind of "meh" about the last couple of SWS shows I got to see, I was delighted by director Sabin Epstein's attention to detail over the short course of our heroes' courtship, the energy, humor, and shades of emotion in the entire supporting cast, and the quirky but appropriate designs.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be backstage at Mesa Arts Center during rehearsals and found myself in an elevator with a few Shrew actors in costume, including one who turned out, I later learned, to have been Jon Gentry, a man I've known for decades. He sported a bottle-blond mullet wig and a white satin track suit with shiny gold trim, unzipped halfway down his chain-bedecked chest.
This gave me the impression that maybe the whole show was sort of glammy in concept (and got me interested in attending), but in fact this character who looks like incontinent Rod Stewart from an episode of South Park is just one (amazing) cog in a relatively eclectic band of weirdos -- bikers, hipsters, people who look like Etsy models -- dressed by costume designer Adriana Diaz. Pegi Marshal-Amundsen's mostly red scene design is a luxe setting for Diaz's mostly monochrome outfits.
I don't want to spoil the individual moments when Petruchio and Kate take their steps toward common ground. It is a wonderful maze to watch them navigate, and Ross Hellwig and Trisha Miller are sure-footed and smexy as all hell every step of the way. But you should also keep an eye out for the performances of Jesse James Kamps as Petruchio's servant Grumio, who throws himself wholeheartedly and wholebodiedly into every nutty idea his master has, and Terence MacSweeny, an innocent bystander who stretches the goofiest of disguise plots and maybe five lines of dialogue into the boldest, sassiest impersonation one can imagine.
The verdict: Those 30-some-odd Shakespeare scripts are not all equally good. No one gets a prize for reading, producing, or attending the whole canon. But to be moved and cheerful at the end of a chestnut like Shrew, a show that perhaps you know almost by heart and which your best hope was to tolerate -- to have your companion actually get a little sentimental tear in her eye -- is so very encouraging in a time and place where classics are sometimes so badly served we wonder what they're for. So go. You need it as a sort of inoculation.
The Taming of the Shrew continues through Saturday, January 25, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street, in repertory with Macbeth. Call 480-644-6500 for tickets, $10 to $35, or order here.