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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Taming of the Shrew
The season is notable as it marks the beginning of Monte's 20th season as Artistic Director of the company and only the second artistic director since it was founded 48 years ago. That her rousing and surprisingly reverential production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew deserved the standing ovation it earned when it was over, was also a confirmation of the kind of talent and evolving vision she has shown while leading STNJ through some tumultuous economic times.
Considering the progressive political and social perspectives that Monte tends to favor and savor in the classics, her slant on The Taming of the Shrew is delightfully contemporary, circa the 1930s. Yet despite the 20th century influence, Monte's approach appears disarmingly counterrevolutionary. After all, the play is what is and what it will always remain: a boisterously obsequious ode to the dominating male.
Things got off to good start with Monte choosing to omit the traditional and basically unnecessary prologue, but getting right into the plot. Instead she chose to include a lengthy pre-show announcement regarding cell-phones, candy wrappers and pagers etc. spoken in Italian. Quite disarming.
I don't think I've ever found the devilish Kate or the "madcap ruffian" Petruchio as hilarious a pair of characters as I presume Shakespeare intended. But I have no qualms about the way domination is contrived and conveyed in this production by Steve Wilson's Petruchio. It is no cloaked truth that Petruchio has blown into Padua with no thought other than to find himself a wealthy wife. He's a cad, but a charming one.
Tall, good-looking with slick dark hair, Wilson plays him with a comfortable macho countenance and self-assured relish. As prescribed, he meets the wealthy and beautiful shrew Katherine, as played with a willful and wild sensuality by Victoria Mack. The Shrew herself is probably the least empathetic and appealing of the Bard's more heroic styled heroines. But there was something about the way the red-headed Mack whipped the air with her riding crop and gave Wilson a few perfectly-timed and well-placed kicks that made me an admirer. Do you need to know, however, that she is tamed, by merciless acts of mental cruelty, torture, and starvation within the space of a few hours?
A fuchsia glow (the work of lighting designer Michael Giannitti) warms John Hobbie's clever setting that features a raised rotating center piece, each side defining the various locations in Padua and Verona, and often enhanced by floral vines and potted fruit trees. That the set remains in tact is a miracle considering all the stress and raucous action within it.
Some of you may recall a pair of non-fiction books that made the best seller lists a little more than twenty years ago: Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them by Susan Forward and Joan Torres and Women Men Love, Women Men Leave by Connell Cowan and Melvyn Kinder. Their collective seriously clinical insights into the battle of the sexes could be read as a modern response to the kind of baiting and brawling between men and women that Shakespeare meted out for laughs more than four hundred years ago. Had the above modernists considered the relationship between the "swearing Jack" woman-hater Petruchio and the "curst, shrewd and froward" Katherina as a forerunner of what they consider to be our present day problems? Theirs is still considered the most dangerously revealing examination of male-female domination in all classic dramatic literature.
There has been endless and silly quibbling over the legitimacy with regard to the extent of authorship as well as the time of writing of The Taming of the Shrew. Be that as it may, this insistently sadistic farce exalts in sexual bondage and would not ordinarily seem to be a perfect candidate for family entertainment. Yet, for some reasons, and in this otherwise consistently amusing staging, we derive a pleasure out of a sexual conquest that flies in the face of everything we would prefer to believe or to which we would subject ourselves.
I don't recall having been as enamored as much before with the minor but important characters many of whom are the real comical backbone of the plot. It is the inspired lunacy created by James Michael Reilly, as Petruchio's fool of a servant that often rules the stage as he strikes one hilarious pose after another. Katie Fabel uses a slightly flakey façade to indicate Bianca's modest gentility. Joe Costa is splendid as the rich Baptista Minola who mission in life is to marry off his daughters Kate and Bianca. And Jack Moran, who most recently gave a memorable performance as a morose young artist in Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven at Playwright Theatre of New Jersey, proves his versatility as Bianca's amorously agile suitor Lucentio.
Monte has stressed the Italianate aspects of the play, allowing the actors to slip in a few lines of text in Italian here and there. Neapolitan melodies create a nice mood during the changing of the scene. Costume designer Erin Murphy has obviously enjoyed her flirtation with the 1930's. It's hard to say exactly when it was that women began to stand up to men with more political and social resolve, but Kate's final lecture to the other brides and spoken with a damning humility on the duty they owe their husbands often provokes the equivalent of hurled objects and remarks from the women members of contemporary audiences. It was interesting that a hush came over the audience during this moment. Perhaps because of Monte's direction and Mack's delivery we were not only able to hear what Kate was saying without irony or inference, but able to hear the words, as do the brides she is addressing, in the light that Shakespeare intended.