by Jenny Hansell
The Taming of the Shrew probably can’t be tamed. Do it with an all-female cast, or all male; change the setting and period; rewrite some key lines to try to minimize the sting, make it more modern, more palatable. No matter what you do, it’s still a play about a man who humiliates, starves, gaslights, beats, and maybe even rapes a woman, who ultimately submits and tells other women to do the same. Yet theater artists are still drawn to the play for its complexity and wit, and for what it has to say about our present day, when a “nasty woman” or one who persists, are likely to be labeled shrewish, or dismissed, or tamed.
So might as well grapple with it head-on, as does Shakespeare & Company’s lively new production, now playing at The Dell at The Mount in Lenox. A talented group of mostly very young actors has been touring this production to school groups for the last five months, and they introduced the play with a pre-show talkback describing some of the reactions they get from students, including anger and even betrayal: one student asked “what did you just make us laugh at?”
The show as presented at The Mount is an expanded version of the school production: the cast, dressed in 80’s style pop-art colors, invites audience participation, including to say “ooooh,” whenever Vincentio is mentioned, presumably to highlight the importance that wealth and money play in Padua. That’s where Kate and her sister Bianca are meant to be married off to rich men, who themselves hope to find women with large dowries along with beauty and docility.
Kate, of course, is not docile, and the plot revolves around her suitor, Petruchio’s, attempts to tame her. In Kirsten Peacock’s superb performance, Kate never really submits: she is an equal in every way, who finds in Petruchio (Nick Nudler, with a studly surfer vibe) an equal, someone with whom she can join in the game. At the end, the two of them seem to be in cahoots, fooling the others into thinking Kate has submitted.
The script has been trimmed to a lean and effective 90 minutes. The colorful sets, lively costumes, late 80s soundtrack (Madonna, a-ha and Billy Idol), and staging, with the actors racing through the audience and across the lovely grounds at the Mount, work well together – there is never a sense of trying too hard.
As Bianca, Bella Pelz hilariously plays up her status as Kate’s victim, wringing sympathy and favoritism out of her father. Other standouts in the excellent cast are Devante Owens, as Lucentio, Bianca’s suitor, and Dara Brown as Tranio, who (for some reason) disguises herself as Lucentio to woo Bianca on his behalf. Why does the play have both a Grumio and a Gremio? Don’t worry about it: Caitlin Kraft and Jordan Mann, and the rest of the cast, breath life into the 400 year old blank verse.
In the talk-back after the show, Nudler responded to a question about how he played Petruchio, saying he felt the way Petruchio treats Kate was what he (the character) had been taught, until he learned to treat her like an equal, and that as an actor he appreciated being supported in making the “ugly choice.” The production’s willingness to show the ugliness and provoke discomfort, anxiety and even anger, and then show the growth of these individual characters without violating the integrity of Shakespeare’s text, is impressive as well as highly entertaining. Well done.
The Taming of The Shrew by William Shakespeare, directed by Kelly Galvin, runs July 9 – August 17 at The Dell at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home. Artistic Director: Allyn Burrows; Managing Director: Adam Davis; Set Designer: Devon Drohan; Costume Designer: Amie Jay; Vocal Coach: Gwendolyn Schwinke; Movement Director: Ryan Winkles; Stage Manager: Cindy Wade.
Cast: Ensemble: Zoa Archer, Cedar Potter, Fiona Herter; Tranio: Dara Brown; Grumio/Widow: Caitlin Kraft; Hortensio/Vincentio: Daniel Light; Bapista: Matthew Macca; Gremio/Curtis: Jordan Mann; Petruchio: Nick Nudler; Lucentio: Devante Owens; Kate: Kirsten Peacock; Bianca: Bella Pelz.
Tickets for The Taming of the Shrew are available online at shakespeare.org or by calling Shakespeare & Company’s box office at (413) 637-3353 and is generously sponsored by Howard and Natalie Shawn. The Mount is located at 2 Plunkett Street in Lenox, Massachusetts. The grounds open 90 minutes before each performance. Audience members are encouraged to bring chairs or blankets and a picnic; chairs are also available to rent for a fee of $2 per chair.