Trading places: What’s new with “Shrew”

by Steven Snyder

The Taming of the Shrew” is not generally considered one of Shakespeare’s finest plays. Over the years, its humor between the sexes has been dampened by audiences who have tired of its blatant aggression toward women. Its current production at the Frank Theatre, however, breathes fresh ideas and controversy into this stale comedy.

Director Wendy Knox keeps this “Shrew” completely faithful to Shakespeare’s text. In fact, an opening sequence – often eliminated from performances – is wisely included in this production. In these two opening scenes, a wandering lord discovers a drunken Christopher Sly (played by Lee Adams) and devises a plan to convince this peasant, upon waking, that he is also a lord. The drunk believes the story, and the lord and his servants perform a play for the ecstatic, intoxicated fool.

This play within a play tells of Katherina (Virginia Burke) and Bianca (Signe V. Harriday), two sisters old enough to wed. The older Katherina is the “shrew” of the play’s title – society views her opinions, arguments and independence as flawed. Bianca, by contrast, is a model, passive woman who entertains many suitors. However, their father has stated that Katherina must marry before Bianca may choose a husband, and this leaves Bianca’s suitors hopeless and frustrated. Circumstances change when an avaricious Petruchio, also played by Adams, comes to town searching for a wife. He is quickly convinced that he can wed Katherina for her money and tame her to his liking.

The humor of this situation is well-executed: Notable performances include Tom Sherohman as Baptista, the girls’ father, who executes his lines with thunderous exaggeration. With his head tilted back and an explosive voice, Sherohman’s eccentric delivery reminds the audience that this is a play performed for the pleasure of the observing Sly.

Knox’s use of Lee Adams is particularly noteworthy. Playing both the arrogant Petruchio and the drunken Sly, his double identity forces the viewer to confront one of Shrew’s core messages: manipulation. As Petruchio, Adams molds Katherina into his ideal image. As Sly, he is manipulated for another’s entertainment. There is a sadistic undertone here that weaves its way in and out of Shrew’s comedy, as characters frequently force their desires and wills on others.

As Katherina, Burke embodies the scars of a strong woman beaten down over time. She is introduced to the play smoking a cigarette, chugging a Budweiser and crushing the can. But after Petruchio marries her, Katherina’s individuality grows weaker and weaker. Her internal pain is not presented comically, but destructively, through an increasingly ragged face, torn clothes and ruffled hair.

The play’s final scene is the most modernized of the production. In a standard performance, Katherina, tamed into submission by Petruchio, admonishes her sister to also submit to her husband. But in this production, Katherina acts not out of her own free will, but in screaming fear of her abusive husband. She does not believe what she is saying and does what Petruchio says for her own safety. In a truly haunting final gesture, Burke climbs atop the wedding table, stares into space and finishes her lines in quiet resignation.

It is this final scene, and the ubiquitous Christopher Sly, that shed new light on “The Taming of the Shrew.” The viewer is not allowed to passively dismiss the story as comedy, but is required to re-examine the play’s humor and commentary in its final moments. And through exploring “Shrew’s” darker side, Frank Theatre has given “Shrew” a modern twist worthy of a second look.

The “Taming of the Shrew” plays through Nov. 24 at Old Arizona Studio, (612) 871-0050. Steven Snyder welcomes comments at [email protected]