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A CurtainUp Review
The Taming of The Shrew

by Chloe Veltman

Shakespeare warns us about life's grave obstacles. In King Lear, he points out the difficulties of parenthood; in The Taming of the Shrew, the difficulties of matrimony. In Othello he tells us not to trust our instincts, while in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's our eyes that cannot be trusted. But there is one terrible danger, perhaps the most grievous of all, which the Bard carelessly omits from his oeuvre: the Danger of Doing Shakespeare in the Park.

The pitfalls are numerous, the most hazardous being the choice of play. If the only productions one saw every year were those performed in the country's garden spots, one would think the playwright only wrote two plays. While al fresco Hamlets and King Richards peep shyly from beneath last year's frayed fairy wings, a cool audience response on a hot summer night is enough to send any entrepreneurial producer back to Bottom.

Nevertheless, every summer night, in every city, under every moonbeam willow bower, someone is performing Shakespeare. Nature lends itself freely to this ritual: as soft light plays on a nearby lake, the gentle sound of pipe and tabor sends the laughter of the picnic masses dancing through the flowery air. The surroundings inspire sublime unity between performers and viewers; drunk on fizzy wine and congeniality, Shakespeare's most archaic gags suddenly make perfect sense. But this conviviality is really a snap-dragon trap. Just as the charmed atmosphere encourages a broad attendance and openness to the theatrical event, so it engenders a bluntness and unsubtlety of performance, thinly veiled under the banner of Accessibility. High on these happy hydrogen clouds of complicity, the actors ham it up, parceling out Shakespeare's poetry as if it were a novelty dildo in a spangly gift-box.

The Taming of the Shrew is a potential minefield of dildo humor for the park producer. Shakespeare's tale of the struggle between a husband and wife for the marital upper hand, inspires romping bawdy from the very outset. Not least for its battle-of-the-sexes theme, but for the prologue involving a drunken old lecher, and a less-than-enthusiastic manservant posing in drag, Shakespeare riddles his text with plenty of slap-and-tickle. The challenge for any director seeking to mount this play in the Hazardous Outdoors, is to balance rollicking schtick with the play's disturbing sub-text.

The Public Theatre's production of The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park, navigates those treacherous straits with intermittent success. While lacking a sense of coherence, the show abounds with vigorous energy. It's a real crowd-pleaser. Jay O. Sanders is brashly unpredictable as Petruchio. A fearless nature is touched by moments of baffled insecurity. Exuding testosterone with ruddy bravura in public, in a private moment the mask slips to ruffled excitement at the thought of encountering the "cursed shrew". Swarthy in Eastwoodesque rodeo leathers, Sanders' Petruchio is equipped to lasso a bucking bronco, and Allison Janney's Katherina bucks with the best of them.

Given to indiscriminate fits of passion and aggressive physicality, Janney provides the slap to Petruchio's tickle. Kate, sourly clad in peevish green and rubber boots, tries to focus on the gardening while her bawdy suitor coyly converts all her verbal attacks into sexual innuendo. Exasperated, Kate resorts to brawn. The scene disintegrates as the couple spar with savage-looking garden tools. Although Janney's noisy, untamed spite provides a contrast to her enforced humility later on, the monotony of her constant bellowing is trying on the ears. There is no variety in Kate's ranting and her anger comes from nowhere. Only when broken, crumpled and all alone in the muddy tatters of her wedding gown, does Janney undergo any transformation. Forlornly pulling on the disembodied taffeta sleeves of the gown destroyed by her husband in a fit of shrew-taming fury, do we get a sense of a woman thinking through the reality of her future as a wife.

Happily, the relationship between Kate and Petruchio eventually takes a more interesting course. After two hours of meaningless midsummer fun, of characters prancing aimlessly around in extravagant costumes, and with even more extravagant accents, the final scene takes a refreshing look at the dynamics of human relationships. Doubled up under the strain of wifely humility, it finally dawns on Kate that life is a bit of a game. Like the actors employed by the Lady in the play's introduction to entertain the drunken dreamer Christopher Sly, Kate also develops a taste for performance. With the coquettish smirk of a cabaret stripper, she casually tosses off her cap at her husband's command. There is both a slyness and sincerity in her action, and her audience is beguiled by the change. The final playful gesture in a play about false identities, Kate's performance unwittingly unlocks an inner truth.

If the end of the play demonstrates quirky harmony, the splattering of half-baked ideas through the rest of the evening jars like Litio's treble. The production takes a promising stab at refuting all the common vestiges of social power - money, knowledge and religion - but does not follow this idea through to the end. Tranio, Lucentio's wily servant (played at a gabbling crescendo by Peter Jacobson), delights in the softness of his master's robes, as much as Gremio, the doddery old suitor to Bianca, enjoys showing off picture postcards of his possessions to Minola. But the emptiness of material wealth fades out at the very moment when it matters most. With the focus shifted entirely on the wedding feast at the end of the play, the production ignores the disenfranchisement of Tranio.

A barber-shop choir of Franciscan monks periodically bites a thumb at both religion and learning. Singing in Latin to Mark Bennett's melodic swing, the smutty lyrics are clumsily disclosed in translation to those non-Latin scholars in the audience. Short of heightening the play's exploration of disguise, and poking fun at piety and knowledge, it is difficult to see how the songs and the singers fit into the narrative. Neither incisive commentary nor propelling action, the ditties seem like superfluous punctuation.

Petruchio's flashy entrance as a Trojan hero astride a wooden horse in the wedding scene further attacks fusty Paduan pedantry. A humorous send-up of the Sacking of Troy, the spectacle is marred by the lack of build up to the Conqueror's arrival. In the omission of Biondello's raving speech describing the sorry state of the groom and his horse, Shapiro has passed up the play's prime opportunity for comic suspense.

Karl Eigsti's set works well as a pastel-colored Arcadian backdrop to the crazed foreground antics, but the haphazard use of cartoon furniture - a zebra-striped chair here, a cardboard-cutout clock, there - adds one more under-developed aesthetic to the assortment. Something similar could be said of Marina Draghici's costumes. Beautiful and elaborate, the designer uses dress to highlight an important aspect of a character's personality. The nippy Biondello wears a jester-like pom-pom strung cap, whose baubles spin around with every zippy gesture; the softly-spoken Bianca (flirtatiously rendered by Erika Alexander) fluffs daintily in puffs of pink muslin. But this 'costume-psychology' is little supported in any other aspect of the production, and rather adds to the one-dimensionality of much of the acting. With no clear directorial vision, the production cloys with an overabundance of color and noise.

In one crucial respect, though, Mel Shapiro grapples with Shakespeare's problematic text, and succeeds in adapting it for the Dreaded Outdoors. Shapiro draws on extra scenes for Sly, not present in Shakespeare's 1623 Folio text, but part of a similar play, The Taming of A Shrew, dating from 1592. Whereas in the Folio, Sly disappears from the action very soon after the start, in this production, Sly (endearingly played as a well-meaning wino by Max Wright), not only awakes in the gutter with a pounding head-ache at the end, but takes on several minor roles in The Shrew story itself. This dramaturgical decision adds unity to the ramshackle mise-en-scêne, as well as being a slick way of drawing the sprawling amphitheater audience into the action. As Sly becomes more and more engrossed with the story, so do we. Rather than simply relying on the 'ether-effect' for audience complicity, the form of the production should keep us hooked.

The elderly woman sitting next to me in the audience leaned over to her husband during the curtain call. "That was fun," she enthused. "Shakespeare is so good at comedy." Her husband's reply: "His comedies are better than his tragedies, that's for sure." The couple set off for home, full of good humor and pretzels. Just as the aristocrat in the play's introduction decides to "practice on" Sly, addling what little judgment he has with "sweet clothes" and "a most delicious banquet" so blurry evenings spent outdoors with Shakespeare appease us with a candy-coated feast.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Mel Shapiro
With Olga Merediz, Max Wright, Magaly Colimon, Evan Robertson, ion Flynn, Jesse Pennington, Chad Smith, Ramon Deocampo, Erika Alexander, Stephen Mo Hanan, Rio Puertollano, Don Mayo, Scott Denny, Peter Jacobson, Tom Mardirosian, MacIntyre Dixon, Allison Janney, Reg E. Cathey, Danyon Davis, Jay O. Sanders, Mario Cantone, Dion Flynn, Erica Schwartz, Regina Bellantese
Set Design: Karl Eigsti
Costume Design: Marina Draghici
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Tom Morse
Composer: Mark Bennett
Choreography: Naomi Goldberg
Fight Director: J. Steven White
Production Dramaturg: John Dias
The Public Theatre at the Delacorte Theatre, Central Park
Tickets and Information: 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY 10003 Tel: (212) 260 2400
From June 17th - July 11th 1999
Reviewed by Chloe Veltman based on 6/30/99 performance

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© Elyse Sommer, July 1999