Related Articles: Theater, All

The Taming of the Shrew

Not Tame Enough

Of everything in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, "The Taming of the Shrew" tends to score the fewest points among the modern literati. Never mind the rollicking, ribald humor and the pun-y gesticulations of what may be the Bard’s most audacious set of characters -- the play is caustic and misogynistic, which automatically calls for a little bowdlerizing, at least in most contemporary versions.

The folks at Cutting Ball Theatre, who are celebrated for their erudite, insightful takes on old-fangled classics, are happy to oblige audiences with a few amendments, namely, an update that coincides with the polymorphous perversions of a San Francisco backdrop, but they’re not cutting out any of the odious bon mots about gender roles (like this missive from Act V: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, Even such a woman oweth to her husband.”). In nearly every aspect (save the obvious polishing-off of antiquated gags and tropes), the Cutting Ball’s version is gloriously loyal to the original.

In an infamous battle of the sexes, "Taming" features fabled pair, Katherina and Petruchio, who attempt to snooker each other and get the upper hand. Katherina is the eponymous “shrew,” who must be wooed and “tamed” by Petruchio in order for her beautiful sister Bianca to entertain her own suitors (an arbitrary conclusion that’s reached by the girls’ father). Thus ensues an epic charade full of bawdy, feather-tickling humor and Shakespeare’s requisite subtext of deceit and illusion (a.k.a. lots of lords in disguises and excessive gender switching).

What makes this version a bit more refreshing than your typical barbfest is the little-known induction, a story-within-a-story device that effectively transforms the play from a mere commentary on gender politics to a deft examination of the performance of identity. Spectators are introduced to a set that’s dappled with graffiti, while the primal throb of club music pulses in the background, and leather daddies and drunkards commune on the streets of San Francisco.

A lord (played by Paige Rogers, promenading in an animal skin coat and glamorous, oversized sunglasses) and his entourage come upon an inebriated lech named Christopher Sly (played by David Sinaiko) who’s sprawled out on the stage, presumably awash in post-Folsom Street Fair overstimulation. When Sly comes to, the lord convinces him that he’s actually an aristocrat, and after a few inconsequential ha-ha moments, puts on a play for Sly’s entertainment.

The play within a play is none other than the shrew story, and extra layers of identity are posed and discarded as the lord, his entourage, and Sly transform into the characters in the story. Hierarchies of power and class crumble, as Sly takes on the role of the loutish Petruchio and the lord assumes that of Katherina. Abrupt switches in identity that point to the ephemeral and ultimately capricious nature of social roles abound throughout the intricate mise-en-scene. Bianca’s most ardent suitor, a nobleman named Lucentio (played by Chad Deverman) pretends to be a penniless tutor, while his servant Tranio (played by Ponder Goddard) assumes Lucentio’s station.

In such a framework, the thematic impediment of misogyny melts into the more interesting idea of shifting identities. Throughout the farce, characters attempt to usurp and maintain power, but because of the very nature of a “play", which necessitates fluidity and temporality, one can’t quite take any of the characters at face value. It becomes even more difficult to view the story as a mere excoriation of uppity women, since the majority of male characters are played by actresses, including the elfin-like Goddard, who shines as the officious servant Tranio, Lucentio’s faithful servant. She’s charming and waggish, and seems to be the only character who’s fully cognizant of the irony in all the craziness.

While the dramatic entanglements can get quite tedious, Sinaiko and Rogers are ebullient as the sparring duo, and their connection crackles with fire and chemistry. Sinaiko’s Sly/Petruchio is a crotch-grabbing swaggerer (with a self-conscious braggadocio that’s humorously undermined by his über-manly biker schtick) whose penchant for double entendre and comic timing always make his scenes highly watchable. Rogers, as the arch and scathingly droll Katherina, is equally brilliant, and offers a performance that ranges gracefully from controlled to frenetic.

This is a mammoth cast, however, and the majority of characters are sadly unmemorable. The hoary old suitors of Bianca, Gremio and Hortensio (played by David Skillman and Karl Mossberger), alternate between sleazy subterfuge and homoerotic declarations, but they’re little more than superfluous foils in the plot. Felicia Benefield, who plays Bianca, is merely a pretty cipher, while Deverman’s Lucentio smacks of irritating earnestness.

Comic relief is offered by Avery Monsen as Grumio, Petruchio’s personal servant, but at a price that’s nearly too high. Monsen’s blithering antics might summon a few laughs from the audience, but most of his gags are predictable and sophomoric, and the excessive stage time that’s taken up by scenes like an amorous exchange between him and a stage pillar slow down the story considerably. Additionally, the slapstick humor that hearkens back to the commedia dell’arte roots of classical comedy is weakened significantly by a surprising lack of physicality. The decidedly agile quips and conceits of "The Miser", a Racine play that enjoyed a successful run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre last season, employed commedia stylings to brilliant effect -- in contrast, "Taming’s" brand of slapstick feels forced and one-dimensional.

With all the schizophrenic role shifts, a few other problems arise. For one thing, the San Francisco subculture, which director Rob Melrose thought would place the play more authentically in its theme of identity fluidity, quickly recedes into the background, making it almost superfluous. Additionally, the freeform sexual orientations of the characters feel overly affected. A lingering kiss between the lord and her lover, played by Felicia Benefield, is enough to convince us of their Sapphic persuasion, but it’s a device that seems too obvious, too easy for what Melrose is trying to say about gender and sexual relations.

Even the perpetual self-consciousness of the characters (who know they’re in a play) gets to be exacting at times. When Petruchio gets chided by the other characters for abruptly switching up to a braying Stanley Kowalski (the lead brute in Tennessee Williams’ "A Streetcar Named Desire") or hums the theme from the spaghetti western, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", the play gets too campy, smug, and anachronistic for its own good.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of "Taming" is its triad of nubile hip-hop dancers, whose interludes litter the play. Melrose intended to use the dance sequences as a way to separate scenes (and perhaps, to break up the tedium of some of the longer segments), but after the first three appearances, the gimmick gets tired and anomalous. In addition, the staging is a little too Spartan and the set too colossal; characters don’t take up space as much as they float dwarfishly within it. This might have been mitigated by a more lively set or a more intimate staging.

One of the most titillating ideas that Melrose plays with is the interrogation of social constructs, but he seems to shy away from such territory after a while. For instance, Tranio’s usurpation of his master’s role brings on several humorous pretenses to power (as well as an obvious fascination with the sartorial choices of the upper crust), but by the time we get to the end, he’s little more than a sidekick to goo-goo eyed loverboy Lucentio. The lost opportunity for commentary and character building is, to say the least, a disappointment.

Perhaps the major saving grace of the play is the famous denouement -- Katherina’s speech to her fellow women, which clues us into her transformation into docile wife. Melrose’s direction is spot-on; even as Katherina succumbs to her husband’s wishes, she does so with such simpering awareness that it’s difficult to gauge her sincerity. The nature of her double role as a character in a play and as the hoodwinking lord brings us back to the framework of deception.

It’s this kind of investment in spectacle and illusion that makes the play brilliant at times, but when it comes down to it, Melrose’s production is more ambitious than fully realized. Behind the shams and facades, we find some magic, but most of the time, it’s just another hollow set.

Runs through July 29
At the Magic Theatre
Thursdays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm
Tickets are $15-30.