New York City Theater
"The Taming of the Shrew"
It starts with a beauty pageant, with red-gowned women of all shapes and sizes, adorned with pasted-on smiles, arms akimbo, sashaying across the Delacorte’s huge stage. And who introduces them? “The girls (sic) are unbelievable,” “fantastic,” “amazing,” says the disembodied voice of a man famous for exploiting women as objects and running beauty contests. (Like Valdemort, his name shall not be spoken.)
This is Shakespeare in the Park’s caustic “The Taming of the Shrew,” the notorious comedy in which men supposedly get the better of women. Yet, what’s been considered a misogynistic work, or at least a warlike love story, becomes, under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, an evening in which comedy is neither frivolous nor optimistic but one which the all-female cast skewers men’s desire, nay need, to subjugate women. And all while bound up in tight male costumes, a pointed contrast with women’s free-flowing clothing. A major drawback, however, is the production’s emphasis on the male drag gimmick coming at the expense of the play’s own merits.
Katherina and Bianca are sisters, the former a virago, the latter pretty as well as pretty dumb and desired by a covey of men who salivate at the prospect of wedding – and bedding -- her. But, alas, Bianca cannot be married until Kate, the elder sister, is. Because of Kate’s temperament, that seems unlikely.
Along comes Petruchio, eager to win Kate‘s hand and her considerable dowry. Forced into marriage, she’s whisked off to a disastrous honeymoon, denied food or sleep. At the end, in one of Shakespeare’s most controversial conclusions, Kate consents to put her hand beneath her husband’s foot and “serve, love and obey.”
Phooey, say we contemporary, humanistic onlookers, ignoring how the sexes fared in Elizabethan times, indeed, in most times. At the Delacorte, however, director Lloyd not only skewers men’s feelings of superiority but imparts a lesson so empowering that, at the end, especially women in the audience whooped and hollered and probably would have embraced each performer if it weren’t for the interference of the ushers.
Here, in the person of the great Janet McTeer, Petruchio is a swaggering bully. Looking raggedy and rural, McTeer is so sure of her Petruchio that she plows through the play like an unstoppable bulldozer. As Kate, Cush Jumbo manages to be both ingratiating and infuriating, not a shrew tamed but one awaiting her moment to howl. Entering on a bicycle, pedaling like mad while Bianca stands at her back, Jumbo looks as if she’ll turn into the Wicked Witch of the West in a trice. McTeer and Jumbo make a well-matched pair of opposites.
There’s no camping here. Women portray men without a hint of cross-dressing. Constrained in suits and ties, on a confusing set that could double as a traveling caravan (sets and costumes by Mark Thompson), they strike macho poses. Among the merrymakers, Judy Gold as Gremio does a barbed imitation of Donald Trump (oops, I said the name), interrupting the action for a stand-up routine; Gayle Rankin is a delicious bird-brained Bianca; and Donna Lynne Champlin is a scheming Hortensio, who utters the line, “Kindness in women, not their beauteous looks, shall win my love.”
Would it were so, but are we condemned to value looks over kindness? By uncovering the cruelty beneath the jest, Lloyd and company further the cause of equality and give us a good time to boot.
--David A. Rosenberg
June 22, 2016