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PERSPECTIVE

The Beast of a Play That Can't Be Tamed

Until someone can make better sense of the Bard's battle-of-the-sexes comedy, it's time to declare a moratorium on the oft-staged 'Shrew.'

August 06, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

In our popular culture, certain things acquire the aura of a classic simply by being there, reliably. Television reruns made "It's a Wonderful Life" what it is today: something more "classic" than it is, really. And relentless recyclings, especially on outdoor festival stages, have bolstered the reputation of a particularly vexing play by William Shakespeare--the one about the tamer and his shrew.

For many, "Shrew" is vile, and that's that. It endorses physical violence against women, especially in a lame or sloppy production. No matter what the directorial concept, Shakespeare's comedy reinforces all the old swaggering patriarchal stereotypes. Misogyny, sexism, physical and psychological abuse run rampant, for laughs.

For others, depending on the tenor of an individual production, it really is a jolly romp, a roughhouse favorite whose characters have by now been slapped with the "classic battle of the sexes" tag so often, they could qualify for the Elizabethan GI Bill.

So could the rest of us battle-weary playgoers.

Furlough, I say. Whichever way directors want to take this piece, they must investigate more inventive ways of making sense of it--comic sense, sexual sense, social sense. Human sense.

*

Most estimates date "The Taming of the Shrew" to 1591 or 1592, relatively early in a career that launched a thousand textual critics. Let's not dwell on its tedious and not-brief subplot regarding Bianca and her suitors, other than to say Bianca cannot marry according to her father's wishes until someone bags her "intolerable curs't" sister, Katherine. (In the 1948 musical "Kiss Me, Kate," Bianca cannot marry until she sings "Tom, Dick or Harry," among other felicitous Cole Porter tunes.)

Kate's fate is Petruchio, newly arrived in Padua to "wive it wealthily." After Petruchio and Kate marry against the latter's will, Petruchio embarks on his campaign of smiling domestic terror. Under pretense of love, he starves her, deprives her of sleep and messes with her foggy head, insisting that the moon's the sun, the sun's the moon.

It works. He tames her. Kate learns the value of submissiveness and--if finessed in performance--of gentleness.

Shakespeare wrote several works categorized (rather dismissively) by scholars over the years as "problem comedies," romances energized--often nearly torn apart--by their mood swings of tragedy and comedy. Among them are "The Winter's Tale," "All's Well That Ends Well" (in which all's well that ends well, but barely) and "The Merchant of Venice," with its eternally controversial portrait of Shylock the Jew.

Today "The Taming of the Shrew" officially ties with "Merchant" as Shakespeare's most problematic comedy. And it isn't even a problem comedy. It is political incorrectness incarnate. Must an entertainment conform to the PC winds of the moment? Of course not. Can we laugh off Petruchio's brainwashing techniques as hearty folk comedy? Maybe. But am I the only one who hasn't yet seen a "Shrew" that didn't stick in the craw by the time Act 4 rolls around?

In an attempt to make the narrative palatable, most "Shrews" nowadays suggest a true-love bond between Petruchio and Kate. The master-slave dynamic therefore takes on the appearance, at least, of a match of equals, the mutual attraction of two overcompensating misfits.

Nowadays, too, the average "Shrew" finds a way of delivering Kate's Act 5 repentance ("Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper . . ."), without drawing unwanted hisses.

More than usual, even, the play pops up everywhere. Topanga Canyon's Theatricum Botanicum continues its Vietnam-vet and biker-chick "Shrew" through Sept. 24. A Wild West "Shrew," replicating a popular production concept seen all over the world, closed last weekend at the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

Shakespeare Orange County wrapped up its version last month. Through Aug. 20, Santa Ana's Rude Guerrilla Theater Company presents its role-reversal spin, with a female Petruchio (not in male drag) wooing a male Kate.

Chief among Southern California productions, South Coast Repertory's 1996 Rat Pack spin on the old tale won the admiration of even confirmed "Shrew"-aphobes. Would that I had seen it. My theatergoing life has been pretty rich, but it remains bereft of a "Shrew" that dissolves enough of the play's problems--or my problems with the play--to impart that longed-for "aha!" feeling of a puzzle solved.

In Charles Marowitz's notorious freehand 1975 adaptation titled "The Shrew," seen in Los Angeles in 1986, Petruchio's reign of terror destroys Kate's personality altogether. (The destruction is literalized by an onstage rape.) The Kate we see at the end is, for all practical purposes, dead.

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