The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. In recent decades it has fallen out of fashion with academics and theater companies, due to its antiquated and misogynist story. In Shrew, the handsome braggart Petruchio makes a wager with several noblemen that he will wed the fiery Katharina. The noblemen are very interested in wooing Katharina’s sweet younger sister, Bianca. But the girls’ father, Baptista, perhaps realizing that Katharina’s sharp tongue and quick wit will guarantee her a life of spinsterhood, has decreed that no one may court Bianca until her older sister is married. Petruchio is up to the challenge. He weds her and then tames her, breaking her spirit to the point where her docility causes her to proclaim “I am ashamed that women are so simple,” in her final heartbreaking speech.
In an effort to combat this, director Patrick Mullins has cross-gender cast the show. Katharina (Ryan Brennan) is played by a well-built man with a beard. Women appear as Petruchio (Vasthy Mompoint), Baptista (Kendal Hartse), and the noblemen Hortensio (Lisa Helmi Johanson), Gremio (Lizzie Hagstedt) and Tranio (also Hagstedt). This idea mostly works, though Katharina in this production comes off more as a brutish bully than as an intelligent outspoken woman. Indeed the points in the show where Shakespeare are front and center are what work best. The cast is excellent, adept at playing both broad comedy and classical language. They also sing and play instruments, as they perform seven original songs written for the production by Jackie Paolella, a local singer-songwriter, who is part of the electropop outfit DJP and MrT.
This all may sound clearer than it is. You see, the cast play not their characters, but a synth pop band called “The Shrews” who break out of their music performance to perform Shakespeare’s comedy. Or maybe they break out of their performance of Shakespeare’s comedy to perform musical numbers? Hard to tell. The entire evening is narrated, or at least commented on, by a DOS prompt computer reminiscent of the state of the art Apple IIe with which Matthew Broderick almost brought about World War III in War Games. This framing of the show left me with one very important question: why?
Why, if the point of this concept is to ask questions about gender roles in the Shakespeare play and in modern society, does it have a 1980s music video aesthetic?
Why a synth pop band? Why not a bluegrass band? Or a hip-hop group? Or a punk rock band? Why a band at all? Why not a football team? A delegation of UN ambassadors? Puppets?
Why does this whole thing play like a protracted episode of Jem and the Holograms?
The production never really addresses those questions, so everything in Mullins’s production seems arbitrary. It’s as if it’s taken for granted that the world was waiting for an all 1980s pop production of The Taming of the Shrew, and that these bold decisions don’t require explaining. But my instinct tells me that we weren’t, and they do. In particular, what do these choices mean in terms of gender identity and the battle of the sexes? There was a decidedly gay influence in early eighties pop, and a level of androgyny, so perhaps that’s why this look and sound was chosen? Even so, what does that mean to today? The Apple IIe narrator does tell us that they’ve cut some text and “added songs because Fun!” But, “because Fun” is not a real justification.
Hartse, Ryan Brenna, Lisa Helmi Johanson, and Mompoint
Paolella’s songs, on their own merits, are all quite fine, though the lyrics are often trite, especially when uneasily juxtaposed with Shakespeare’s rich poetry. An example lyric: “It’s so amazing how different types of people will grow their roots out like a tree until the sidewalk burns into crooked pieces…”A fine pop lyric on its own, but sentiments like that add little to Shakespeare’s original text, and do not seem to even be functioning in a Brechtian manner in which they comment on the original text. So, what’s the deal?
What frustrates me most about this is that the production seems less concerned with exploring the issue of misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew and more with apologizing for it. Gone are many of the most famous scenes. The slapstick scene in which Petruchio starves and beats Katharina into submission are cut, replaced with a stylized S&M production number. Gone is the scene in which Petruchio takes Katharina over his knee and spanks her in the public square. It seems to me that a production that wishes to explore the misogyny in the text would keep these scenes intact, and maybe do away with the comedic subplot in which two of Bianca’s suitors disguise themselves as tutors in order to woo her under her oblivious father’s nose. But Mullins’s production censors these moments, placing the equivalent of a black censor’s bar in their place. I will agree with the criticism that the play is rife with misogyny, but it’s also four and a quarter centuries old, so, maybe we could give it a pass? And, if not, then why produce it at all? Shakespeare wrote a number of charming comedies that are less sexist… perhaps it would make more sense to produce one of those instead, if you are so bothered by the content of this one.
The attitude of this production is in keeping with the kind of thinking that has brought us alternate editions of Huck Finn with all the n-words taken out. There are lots of historical artifacts in art and literature that don’t sit well with a modern point of view. As a country we seem to be losing our ability to view these things in the sense of a historical context, and this, in my humble opinion, is a real dumbing down of America. The PC police can criticize elements of modern work all they want, but you cross a line when you impose modern political correctness onto the classics. The first masterpiece of the American cinema is D.W. Griffith’s racist Klan propaganda movie The Birth of a Nation. I don’t like any of the ideas set forth in that film, but I can still watch it and understand its cultural importance. Of course it’s racist. It’s an American movie from 1915.
Misogyny aside, The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, and removing the comedy and replacing it with synth pop is not really a win for the audience. Still, Mullins and team deserve props for their bravery. This production is risky and novel, since we all know our local theaters play it way too safe. While I found this production extremely frustrating (and, be warned, it is trying way too hard at any given moment), it takes chutzpah to even try something this bold. It doesn’t pay off in this production, but when artists take risks they can’t expect to succeed every time. Artists and intellectuals will probably find this more satisfying than laymen, in the sense it will give you some things to discuss over cocktails after the show. But those who prefer their Shakespeare straight will be disappointed; unless they’ve been looking forward to the upcoming Jem and the Holograms movie, and need something to tide them over in the meantime. In which case, The Taming of the Shrew may suffice.
Dude looks like a lady. The Taming of the Shrew plays at the historic Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk through March 15. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 4pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $10-$55. For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit the .