How do you tame The Taming of the Shrew? It has the usual early-Shakespeare problems: clunky exposition, overwrought plotting, huge dropped stitches. (The framing device, laboriously introduced, simply disappears after two scenes.) But a much bigger problem confronts contemporary interpreters of the play. In a program note to the production that opened tonight at the Delacorte in Central Park, the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, sums it up by saying he has “never been able to get behind the central action of the play, which is, well, taming a woman.” Indeed, The Taming of the Shrew depicts and for all we know endorses the sadistic misogyny that was the flip side of courtly love in the culture it arose from. So while Bianca, the ductile younger daughter of a wealthy Paduan gentleman, is respectfully wooed by several suitors bearing verses, her ferocious older sister, Katherina — who must marry before Bianca can — is gradually broken by her husband, Petruchio, through manipulations that amount to torture. (She is kidnapped, starved, and presumably raped.) It’s despicable, except that it’s fascinating, which is why directors keep trying to find ways to reimagine it more palatably.
My experience with the play suggests that such attempts are doomed — and, I would argue, unnecessary. We often tolerate plays that depict intolerable events. (The Public successfully staged The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino a few years back, though its central action is the humiliation of a Jew.) In any case, the frame that Phyllida Lloyd has devised for Shrew is neither satisfying as a workaround nor coherent in itself. It’s just kitsch, randomly applied and then run into the ground. Lloyd sets the action within the “Miss Lombardy 2016” pageant; the all-female cast plays contestants therein. One of them tap-dances, one twirls a baton; Bianca (or Miss Padua North, as her sash informs us) sings a country song while Katherina (Miss Padua South) rides her around on a bicycle. Questions immediately start piling up: If this is a pageant, why does Mark Thompson’s set design give us a circus? Why would two sisters raised together represent different parts of the city? And why is Katherina fixated on cycling? (Later we see her doing odd things with a tire pump.) Still, the silliness puts us in a good mood, especially when the Trumpian voice of the pageant’s emcee comes over the loudspeakers to tell us that “one of these girls is going to take home a yuge prize. I mean it’s unbelievable!”
When the text of the Shrew proper begins — severely cut to two hours — we are meant to understand that it is being offered as the dramatic talent of one of the pageant’s entrants, or perhaps of all of them in a collective fugue state. The 16 performers now emerge in male costume, except for Cush Jumbo as Katherina and Gayle Rankin as Bianca, who are dressed like extras on Hee-Haw. Certainly the humor is as random and lowbrow.
Petruchio’s home is a beat-up van with a license plate reading PISA ASS. His spaniel humps Katherina. Excerpts from The Mikado, Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” and Gone With the Wind (in place of Ovid) are interpolated almost randomly. At one point, Judy Gold, otherwise amusing as Bianca’s suitor Gremio, even breaks character to deliver some antiquated Vegas shtick about liberated women: “What happened to the good old days when I would leave my office, grab a martini, fuck my mistress, go home and BOOM! Dinner’s on the table!” Why, you may ask, is this happening? Perhaps the show’s operating principle is best summed up a bit later in Gold’s monologue, when she utters the immortal Shakespearean words “Lean in and suck this.”
Amidst this free-for-all of winks and sideshows, it quickly becomes apparent that the production’s raison d’être, the casting of women in male roles, is not going to be used seriously to defuse the play’s supposedly dangerous content. With delicacy it could have been, in the same way it defuses a character like Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, who if played by a woman might well be offensive. But Lloyd does nothing with the gender reversal except milk it for hike-up-your-trousers laughs. When the pageant frame returns very briefly and chaotically at the end, you feel cheated because it hasn’t achieved a thing.
Well, it achieves one thing. Eustis rightly comments that a major disappointment inherent in the Public’s Shakespeare mission is the resulting “paucity of women’s roles.” In theory, this Shrew could have acted as a corrective, just as Lloyd’s women’s-prison-themed productions of the Henry IV plays and Julius Caesar at the Donmar in London and at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn have given top-flight performers like Harriet Walter a chance to sink their teeth into central roles in the canon. (Jumbo played Mark Antony in that Caesar.) Here, too, a host of women otherwise difficult to cast in Shakespeare get a shot at roles that drive the action. But in practice, the value of the wager is left on the table. With one exception, the women playing men do not come close to filling the roles, directed as they are to focus like amateurs on the mechanics of the drag. (They all walk like cowboys and use distorted voices that make them sound mobbed up.) Only the great Janet McTeer, as Petruchio, gets around the conceit to some actual interpretive acting, and besides looks pretty hot in classic rebel duds: black jeans, death’s-head jacket, cowboy boots, leather bracelets. She gives us a Petruchio who is less a puffed-up son of privilege than a seedy brawler whose macho is as much a reaction to social constructions of gender as is Katherina’s “frowardness.” By connecting the dots between the way he treats his wife and the way he treats everything else around him — he abuses his servant, too, and pees on a tent pole and vomits in his purse — McTeer makes Petruchio just about the only coherent character in the play, and thus the only likable one. That result is intensified by Jumbo’s one-note Shrew and Rankin’s twit of a Bianca. If these are women, this feminist production bizarrely demonstrates, perhaps we prefer men.
The Taming of the Shrew is at the Delacorte Theater through June 26.