Bard on the Beach's The Taming of the Shrew has a rambunctious energy
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Meg Roe. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Mainstage on Thursday, June 7. Continues in rep until September 22
Director Meg Roe’s take on The Taming of the Shrew has an attractive body and no heart. The problem lies in the interpretations of the central characters.
The Taming of the Shrew is famously tricky to parse. In it, Petruchio, a big-talking guy who wants to marry for money, decides to wed Kate, a shrew with a bountiful dowry. After marrying her, he “tames” her by denying her food, sleep, and the comfort of logic. By the end, a compliant and grateful Kate offers to put her hand under her master’s foot. Let’s not forget that, in Shakespeare’s time, it was illegal to be a scold—a shrew—and only women could be accused of the crime.
So was Shakespeare just another misogynist? A chorus of his strong female characters, including Rosalind, Viola, and especially Beatrice, would all tell you, “Not bloody likely.” It makes sense to see the misogyny in Shrew like the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice: the injustices are examined but not endorsed.
In the most satisfying versions of Shrew that I’ve seen, it’s clear that Kate and Petruchio love one another, and he leads her to see that while sexist social conventions must be acknowledged, a couple can find freedom within their relationship by treating those conventions as a public game. Granted, this liberation has harsh limits, but it’s arguably a more comfortable option than being a permanent social outcast.
In a recent interview with the Straight, director Roe and Lois Anderson, who’s playing Kate in this Bard on the Beach production, talked this line more or less, but it’s not what I saw on-stage on opening night.
I saw no sexual or romantic chemistry between Anderson’s Kate and John Murphy’s Petruchio. Partly, that’s because Murphy is miscast. He’s an excellent actor, confident and playful, but he doesn’t have the swagger that can make dominance hot. Most importantly, under Roe’s direction, I saw virtually no vulnerability in these characterizations. Anderson shows us some in the scene in which Petruchio appears to leave Kate standing at the altar, but for the most part Anderson’s Kate just yells her way through the first half, and it’s boring.
There’s a scene of travelling in which Kate finally clues in to Petruchio’s game, but in this telling I saw compliance from Kate without profound understanding. Although her final hand-under-foot speech is emotionally moving, I didn’t know how Kate got there because I didn’t see the intelligence in her choice.
For me, Dawn Petten’s Bianca is the other problematic portrait in Roe’s Shrew. Bianca is Kate’s sweet younger sister. I have seen Bianca played effectively as a true innocent and as a conniving suck-up. Here, she’s vulgar and it doesn’t work; there ends up being little contrast between Bianca’s rough edges and Kate’s. That said, within a fundamentally flawed take, Petten finds some hilarity, including Bianca’s drunkenness in the second half.
Other supporting characters who, as written, are more straight-ahead clowns, fare much better. Shawn Macdonald surprises again and again with the crotchety unctuousness of Gremio, an aged suitor to Bianca. Kayvon Kelly is shamelessly inventive as Petruchio’s servant Grumio. Kevin Kruchkywich is slyly buoyant as Hortensio, another of Bianca’s suitors. And Anton Lipovetsky lights up the stage with innocence as Lucentio, yet another member of Bianca’s hopeful posse.
With its graceful Gothic arches and tender green evocations of landscape, the elegance of Kevin McAllister’s set provides an interesting counterpoint to Roe’s rambunctious and excessive stage business. Mara Gottler’s Empire-period costumes—in delicate yellows and greens, with one effective dip into deep purple—are to die for.
This is Bard on the Beach, so there’s a certain standard, but in this case there’s not enough reason to care.