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A CurtainUp Review
The Taming of the Shrew

Katherine, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women/What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.-- .— Petruchio
The Taming of the Shrew
Maggie Siff
With one daring leap, Theatre for a New Audience's The Taming of the Shrew takes us back to the American frontier of the late 19th century, and gives Shakespeare's knockabout farce a fresh pioneer spirit. This two-hour-plus production is filled with live piano music between scenes, a supporting cast of able actors, and a feisty performance by Maggie Siff as Katharina. Only Andy Grotelueschen, miscast in the central role of Petruchio, prevents it from soaring.

In spite of its major casting gaffe, this production has much to commend it. Before we have heard a line of the play, we are drawn back to a boomtown atmosphere via the piano player on stage (Jonathan Mastro), tickling the ivories with the rhythms of ragtime and classical music. And it's not just the music that is gratifying here. A good deal of the credit for the 19th century magic must go to Donyale Werle and Anita Yavitch, whose set (a rustic country house with countless windows, ladders, and doors) and costumes (from haute couture to raffish rags) do far more than decorate the stage. They create an ambience in which one feels the winds of change as if one had suddenly entered a world in which enterprising folks could gain property and wealth, and perhaps a good wife or husband.

Arin Arbus, who intelligently directs here, has genuinely extended the territory of the Elizabethan drama. A program note cites that the production text is based on Shakespeare's 1623 folio and adds lines from the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew. It's a long evening but the pay off is that we have the opportunity to watch the charming Introduction, that play-before-the-play, which shows us the gulling of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly and his supposed metamorphosis into a Lord.

Although other directors have retained this framing device, Arbus ratchets up its theatricality by having the “Lord” eventually sit in the front row of the orchestra to watch the interlude (The Taming of the Shrew, of course) put on by actors in a travelling theatrical troupe. Thus, she never allows us to forget that this is a play-within-a-play, and what we see transpiring on stage is not real but only a shadow of reality. Add Christopher Sly's miraculous morphing into a Lord (during the Induction) prefigures Katharina's more arduous changing from a “shrew” to a proper wife in the main action and one can really peel the onion of Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

There are three plots interwoven into Shakespeare's Shrew: The Christopher Sly Introduction (often excised); the love-plot of Lucentio and Bianca; and the love-hate plot between Petruchio and Katharina. All are here done with less glitz but more psychological complexity and nuanced acting. Maggie Siff is a very shrewd “shrew.” Siff's Katharina (Shakespeare's first draft for Beatrice) gives as good as she gets here. Her famous “obedience” speech from Act 5 succeeds, largely because she conveys that she's actually the “tamer,” and not the “tamed.” Her Katharina takes the wind out of Petruchio's sail, not with force, but by wisely acquiescing to his whims. To be fair, Andy Grotelueschen is merely miscast here as the lothario Petruchio (Remember his excellent Cloten in Cymbeline last season?). He simply needs a different role to showcase his talent.

There is fine support from Kathryn Saffell, as Katharina's sister Bianca, who knows how to play the family's “spoiled pet” to perfection. John Keating's Tranio possesses ideal comic timing, and John Pankow's Grumio inhabits Petruchio's servant with suitable understatement. It's impossible to comment on all the smart touches that make this Shrew snap to attention, but gratefully it's done with no tyrannical whip in Petruchio's hand.

There's no doubt that the entire ensemble feels at ease with Shakespeare's language (voice coach Andrew Wade). Equally important is their boundless enthusiasm. If you sit in either orchestra section abutting the stage, your head will likely swivel as actors leap on and off the performing space, and circulate through the aisles. Wherever you sit, there's marvelous fun in watching all the performers scheming, hiding, lying, or assuming disguises (only Bianca remains totally herself) in this shape-shifting play.

To sum up, Arbus goes the full distance with this Shrew, remaining faithful to Shakespeare's tale and bringing to fresh live by transposing the setting to the American frontier. While the lack of chemistry between its leading principals is a drawback, Siff's Katharina compensates.

The Taming of the Shrew
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Arin Arbus
Cast: Featuring MAGGIE SIFF and ANDY GROTELUESCHEN Cast: Denis Butkus (Lucentio, Sugarsop), John Keating (Tranio), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Baptista) John Christopher Jones, (Gremio), Saxon Palmer (Hortensio), Kathryn Saffell (Bianca), Varin Ayala(Biondello), Andy Grotelueschen (Petruchio), John Pankow (Grumio), Peter Maloney (Curtis, The Tailor, Vincentio), John Christopher Jones (Nathaniel), Jonathan Mastro (Philip, Piano Player), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Gregory), Olwen Fouere (Widow) Maggie Siff (Katharina).
Sets: Donyale Werle
Costumes: Anita Yavich
Original Music and Arrangements: Michael Friedman
Lighting: Marcus Doshi
Voice Director: Andrew Wade
Movement Consultant: B. H. Barry
Choreographer: Doug Elkins
Production Stage Manager: Renee Lutz
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Tickets: $75. Phone 646/223-3010 or visit
From 3/18/12; opening 4/1/12; closing 4/21/12.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 8pm, with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 40 minutes including intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 3/30/12
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