The Taming of the Shrew is an engaging, often entertaining play (produced locally three times just in 2015), but one that is also frequently misunderstood and reviled for its allegedly misogynist point of view. George Bernard Shaw famously called the final scene “altogether disgusting to modern sentiments.”
The simple fact that directors must consider is that Shrew as written is a romantic comedy and must end with a happy couple. If Kate is “tamed” into meek subservience, that’s not a happy ending, especially today. If Petruchio comes off as a bully — or worse, an abuser — again, a wrong result.
Directors and dramaturgs must also consider what Shakespeare meant: Is Kate’s subjugation typical for the times, as some suggest, like the anti-Semitism in another problematic romantic comedy, The Merchant of Venice? That’s not supported by many of the women in his other comedies, for whom love is not surrender, but fulfillment.
Without rewriting the play, a production must find nuances and reveal insights that lead to the right ending.
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s Carmen Khan has figured it out and takes great care to make sure we understand the mutual affection that blossoms between Petruchio and Kate — and I don’t mean by penning an explanatory program note (though she did).
A believably youthful Kate
Khan casts Jenna Kuerzi as the titular shrew, for once a believably youthful, perhaps teenage, Kate. While the script never specifies her age, she’s old enough to marry (i.e., at least 14), and so is her younger sister, Bianca. So Kate could be 16, 17, maybe 20, but the realities of theater production mean she's often played as a woman in her 30s, 40s, or even 50s, as befits a star role. Thirty-five-year-old Elizabeth Taylor played Kate in the 1967 film, for example.
Kuerzi’s dynamic Kate, a “fiend of hell” according to Gremio, who prefers her sister, is a typically moody, impetuous, disrespectful, rebellious, overly dramatic teen, an “irksome brawling scold,” as Petruchio says. And is she ever! Clad in black with a mess of fire-red curls, she packs a plus-size voice in a petite body, bellowing at her mother — father in the script, but casting J.J. Van Name adds maternal wisdom to Baptista’s parental suffering — and everyone else who crosses her in a spitting fury that would seem mentally ill from anyone over 19.
Aaron Kirkpatrick’s scruffy Petruchio, a little older, is affable, impulsive, and witty enough to be a believable match. He’s accompanied by lovably grumpy servant Grumio (Michael Gamache).
Such devoted sisters
Julie Jensen Ray makes a fine teenage Bianca, though Khan could take their infighting farther by highlighting the younger sister’s ability to instigate trouble while feigning innocence. This Bianca’s height and wholesome blonde beauty, as well as the amorous attentions of men who can’t marry her until Kate takes a husband, further fuel Kate’s rage.
Bianca’s suitors range from Greg Giovanni’s crotchety Gremio, who wields a cane equipped with a bicycle bell and a bottle of booze, to Deaon Griffin-Pressley’s nervous Hortensio and Josh Kachnycz’s youthful Lucentio, who complicates the plot by trading identities with servant Tranio (William LeDent). Khan’s production misses some laughs with these inept competitors, particularly Hortensio’s lack of disguise as the sisters’ music tutor. (Like everyone who knows these plays well, I have my favorite moments.)
Khan’s bright and quick production — under two hours, with impressive clarity — adopts some “original practices,” as championed by the Globe Theatre in London and Virginia’s Blackfriars. Michael Lambui’s “universal lighting” never changes, not only making the stage sunnier than any London afternoon, but also never dimming the house, which creates a welcoming, immersive atmosphere. Bethanie Wampol’s set might seem too bright for Hamlet or King Lear, but its handsome simplicity resembles a Shakespearean all-purpose stage as well as the Mediterranean locale. Vickie Esposito’s costumes are pleasantly modern but distinguish characters well, though all the women except Kate wear flat slippers, which seems wrong (particularly if it’s because of the outdated idea that women should not be taller than men).
Sound, props, and furniture are minimal, focusing our attentions on the actors, who always earn it — especially Kuerzi and Kirkpatrick, whose connection sizzles. The arc of their complicated relationship is both clear and satisfying.
PST returns to repertory (see my review of the Quintessence Theatre Group’s rep for thoughts on that) in the spring with Macbeth and Twelfth Night, playing together from April 1 – May 22.
What, When, Where
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Carmen Khan directed. Through November 1 at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St., Philadelphia. 215-496-8001 or phillyshakespeare.org.