Theatre for a New Audience:
The Taming of the Shrew
(Duke Theatre, through April 21)
When informed that TFANA’s new Shrew would be post-Feminist, I thought “What would Betty Friedan do?”. But not to worry: In addition to having mounted a marvelous interpretation of Shakespeare’s second comedy, the company has thoughtfully included a Perspectives section in the program that bolsters both sides of the script’s arguments; it contains a breezy pro-finale encomium from Meryl Streep, and a substantial quote by Germaine Greer, that set any pre-attendance agita to rest:
…[Petruchio] wants [Kate’s] spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping…Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both…
Well, readers, it doesn’t get any better than that. Except for the production itself. The energy of the cast rises like caffeine mist from the stage and simply never lets up. But there are always shimmering peaks and psychological valleys in succession that keep you laughing and crying and, occasionally, a tad off-balance—yet always interested. You know it’s superlative when the prospect of its happy ending seems occasionally less than certain.
So what have we, then? An updated (but never bent out of shape) take on a beloved classic, set in a 19th-century frontier town of wooden slats tacked together (Louise Nevelson meets Little House on the Prairie). The frame of drunken tinker-cum-lord is set up, and the troupe of strolling players, in Elizabethan motley, begins the story.
Here’s the best part: the play, the players, and the pitch-perfect direction of Arin Arbus, TFANA’s associate artistic director. I am sorry to have missed her earlier work, but Shrew is enough to make it clear that her love of language is equaled by her love of its physical expression in both face and body. The Duke’s compact stage stage is alive with the possibilities afforded by her talents for guiding a cast that has not one weak link. Yes, everyone has their moment, for Shrew is not only etched in Shakespeare’s nimble wit, but has probably the best war-of-the-sexes dialogue ever written. That said, as good as the actors are, and as perfectly cast, the play finally rests on the talents of its Petruchio and its Kate—Andy Groteleuschen (recently of Cymbeline) and Maggie Siff (the Jewish department store heiress who gobsmacked Mad Men’s Don Draper). Here, they are evenly matched, and unstoppable. The great set pieces of their duels crackle with gusto (and you can hear every syllable) as Petruchio tames his bride by denying her sleep, food, and fashion. See them run!
What conclusions can we draw from this bulletproof masterpiece, still galvanizing actors and audiences for over 300 years since it first played in London? That it has stood the test of time, that its humor still makes us laugh, and that it inspired Cole Porter to write his best musical; the songs were his own, but he helped himself shamelessly to Shakespeare’s text (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!).
We’ve already quoted Germaine Greer; now it’s time for Meryl Streep: “…So why is selflessness…wrong?…Service is the only thing that’s important about love…Duty. We can’t stand that idea, either…But duty might be a suit of armor you put on to fight for your love.” And there’s more: we know that Betty Friedan mellowed in later life. What would she have done? She would have loved this production. I certainly did!