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The Taming of the Shrew

A Wild West Setting for A Not-So-Wild Shrew

Theatre for a New Audience, The Duke on 42nd Street, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, April 7, 2012 (Seats B–108&109, center front)
Directed by Arin Arbus

Kate in a purple dress, bites Petruchio's hand
Maggie Siff as Kate bites the hand of Petrruchio, played by Andy Grotelueschen, during their courtship scene in The Taming of the Shrew at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo by Henry Grossman, Theatre for a New Audience.

Kate and Petruchio are in love. The affection they show for each other at play’s end is genuine and mutual. In Arin Arbus’ Old West staging for Theatre for a New Audience, Maggie Siff's Kate concluded her long speech on a wife’s duty to her husband by lowering to her knees, and Andy Grotelueschen’s Petruchio kneeled opposite her. “Why, there’s a wench!” he said admiringly. “Come on, and kiss me, Kate,” and the kiss was a passionate one. Petruchio then showed Kate the money he had won wagering on her. She first expressed surprise—not so much that he bet on her obedience but at the amount he won (she knew he was up to something)—that slid to a look that said, admiringly, “Why, here’s a rascal!”

In triumph, Petruchio spoke his last line—“And being a winner, God give you goodnight!”—and threw his just-won cash into the air, scattering it among his fellows: a very un-Petruchio thing to do.

In mapping out her vision of Kate’s journey and Petruchio’s part in it, Arbus compromised consistency in their portrayals. Petruchio says he comes to Padua to wive wealthily, and his lines portray him as highly mercenary. Even after he falls in love with Kate, he measures her value in terms of property, and his confidence in her at the end inspires him to up the ante in the wager. This is not a man to throw cash around, even in the general exuberance with which Groteleuschen played him. He even looked fantastical, with wildly wooly hair and wearing a bright green admiral’s coat with braided shoulder boards, like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Glint-eyed, his mouth ever-so-slightly bending into an ironic grin, Grotelueschen’s Petruchio charmed us as much as he did Kate. But when it came to wealth, Petruchio counted his pennies.

Siff brought fresh readings to Kate’s lines, and in her performance emerged a woman of much wit with a cynic’s bite rather than a shrew’s bark. Even her final speech bandied earnestness with irony, sometimes genuinely pressing the case for duty to the other women, sometimes performing a satire for the sake of a bemused Petruchio. This was not the kind of woman who would respond to Petruchio’s public announcement “that upon Sunday is the wedding day” by literally spitting at him—she on a balcony up stage, he down stage left—before yelling “I’ll see thee hanged on Sunday first” (if Siff misfired, audiences in the front row on that side of the stage would have been in the spittle zone).

If I seem to be nitpicking, the inconsistencies impacted the crux moment of this production. Siff’s Kate, despite expectorating at Petruchio at the end of their previous meeting, now watched expectedly for him with heightened anticipation in her wedding gown. She seemed eager to marry. His rude appearance and crude behavior crushed her. Instead of a Petruchio reining in a reticent Kate, this Petruchio usurped a hopeful Kate. This depiction was difficult to reconcile with the portrayals Shakespeare wrote and with the Petruchio and Kate we’d see otherwise in this production.

This production was all about Kate’s journey, and Siff’s Kate was a deeply hurt soul. Her father, Baptista (Robert Langdon Lloyd), not only doted more on her younger sister, Bianca (Kathryn Saffell), he came right out and told Kate he preferred Bianca. “What, will you not suffer me?” Kate asked after Bianca was given solace by her father. Baptista shook his head in reply, standing tall, firm, unconcerned how that might hurt his elder daughter. “Nay, now I see she is your treasure,” Kate replied, Siff using Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verse construction to press her broken heart. Kate wanted only to be loved, but her intelligent wit and, more significantly, her honesty got her brandished as a shrew; and so she became the part.

While Arbus might have mixed her messages at the start of the wedding scene, the message at scene’s end was clear. After Petruchio threatened bodily harm to anyone who would make Kate stay for the wedding feast, her father, sister, and the family friends didn’t just cower, they appeared to be hoping she wouldn’t resist Petruchio, either. Realizing this, Siff’s Kate sank her shoulders under the weight of total rejection, gathered up her dress, slowly turned and walked off the stage toward Petruchio’s country home. Immediately upon her exit, the party atmosphere resumed on stage.

Petruchio saw Kate’s intelligence and respected her honesty. But he also saw the years of conditioning as a shrew that needed to be undone before she, let alone he, could have a peaceful life. Kate would throw temper tantrums like a bratty kid, and when Petruchio went into one of his staged rages, he always ended up imitating a tantrum-throwing Kate. She recognized it each time. After such a moment with the tailor’s gown, Kate resignedly and quietly took off the dress and handed over the cap. In one of the production’s sweetest moments, the couple then sat quietly on the stage as Petruchio talked of appearances. “Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor, for ’tis the mind that makes the body rich, and as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, so honor peereth in the meanest habit,” he said. “O no, good Kate, neither art thou the worse for this poor furniture and mean array. If thou account’st it shame, lay it on me. And therefore frolic.”

This line was this production’s centerpiece moment, where Kate finally saw into Petruchio’s purposes and understood he was inviting her to share a marriage of mutual respect. His remaining tricks—the time of day, the sun and moon, the old Vincentio as a budding virgin—were lessons in trust leading to their romantic kiss in the street and the teamwork triumph at the wedding feast.

As they triumphed, another character fell into despondency. In a subtly persuasive performance, Saffell made Bianca a candidate for the shrew in the play’s title except that there was no taming this spoiled child. Along with the superior attitude she aired around Kate (and why not? Daddy was always at her beck), it was the way she played all the men—save Petruchio—that formed her portrayal. A revealing moment came when Tranio (John Keating) disguised as Lucentio told the real Lucentio (Denis Butkus) and Bianca that he and Hortensio (Saxon Palmer) had agreed to forswear further courting of Bianca. Saffell’s Bianca looked disappointed, glancing longingly toward Hortensio’s exit and even at Tranio, though his courting had always been a ruse. She adored attention from any source, which explained her pouting demeanor in the final scene where Kate and the Widow drew the limelight from Bianca at her own wedding feast. Another revealing moment came after Biondella (Varín Ayala) sent Lucentio to fetch Bianca and take her to the church to marry. “I may, and will, if she be so contented,” Butkus’ Lucentio said, but then he paused, worried. “She will be pleased, then wherefore should I doubt?” Perhaps he should have heeded his instincts at that moment.

In addition to Siff, Grotelueschen, and Saffell, other standout performances came from Keating and his hair. Speaking in an Irish brogue, Keating approached both his Tranio role and Lucentio impersonation with wild-eyed enthusiasm—and so did his hair, a coralberry bush springing up and out in all directions whenever he removed his bowler hat.

Matthew Cowles left an impression, too, as Christopher Sly, the tinker who is the subject of a lord’s prank making him believe he is a lord himself, recovered from a 15-year amnesia in the play’s induction (the players presenting Taming of the Shrew is part of the ruse). This Sly was an Otis Campbell of a town drunk, and rather than laughing at the prank, we were moved to sympathy as Sly grappled with his identity and then finally gave in to the scam. Anybody taking notice upon leaving the theater would have seen Sly waking up as the tinker and slowly, sadly walking back stage.

Yes, this Sly remained throughout the play. Although Shakespeare’s version drops Sly after the first scene of the play proper, an anonymous version of the play called The Taming of a Shrew maintained the Sly framework to the end, and at one point he interposes in the action of the play. Arbus kept this device, giving Cowles’ Sly a seat in the theater’s front row. I bow to Shakespeare’s wisdom in almost all his designs, but I think he was wrong to drop Sly. Keeping him around results in one of the play’s funniest moments when Sly demands that the officer called on to arrest Vincentio be sent away simply because he’ll have no officers in his play. I’ve seen this staging twice now, and both times, in a great fourth-wall-shattering moment for the audience, the actor playing the cop (Jonathan Mastro in this instance) was peeved at being deprived of his big moment.

The Old West setting didn’t add much thematically to the play, but it did provide a visual treat in the wood facade set designed by Donyale Werle, with balconies, shutters, and swing doors. When he wasn’t being deprived of his part as the Officer, Mastro provided a soundtrack on a saloon-style piano at the side of the stage, reminding us that this was a pretty piece of play-acting put on for a tinker in an elaborate prank. That Sly, and then Kate, and afterwards Bianca, and finally Sly at the end kept an undertone of sadness running through the proceedings rendered the knockabout setting superfluous.

Eric Minton
April 11, 2012

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