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The Taming of the Shrew

Trump-eting Shrew As a Feminist Manifesto

The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park, Delacorte Theater, New York, New York
Sunday, June 5, 2016, K–206 & 207 (center-right)
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Petruchio in leather jacket, straggly hair has his left arm around Kate, wearing pigtails and a red-checked mini-poodle skirt, and is pointing at her with her right hand.
Petruchio (Janet McTeer, left) and Katherina (Cush Jumbo) in the Public Theater's The Taming of the Shrew at Central Park's Delacorte Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus, Public Theater.

The front-page headline on the USA Today at our hotel blared, "'Why are you yelling': Women still face a political double standard." The story described some of the subtle, culturally grounded sexism Hillary Clinton faces in the U.S. presidential campaign on the eve of her becoming the first woman ever to clinch the nomination of a major political party in the United States. Donald Trump can rail in a stump speech and people regard him as provocative (whether they view him as profound docudrama, a Farrelly brothers comedy, or a horror flick). Bernie Sanders can pound his fist and speak like a backfiring truck and people regard him as alluring. If Clinton merely talks in urgent tones, people regard her as shrill. "Why, she's a devil, a devil, the devil's dam," Tranio says of Katherina in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and I've often seen and heard people use the same descriptor for Clinton—when they aren't decrying her wardrobe.

Hmmm, seems this edition of USA Today might have been an extension of The Taming of the Shrew we saw in New York Central Park's Delacorte Theater the previous evening. Such is the pinpoint relevance of the Phyllida Lloyd–helmed, all-female production, the first entry in Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park season. Shakespeare's play has been used to express a feminist viewpoint for the past four decades, but directors usually do that through subtle tweaking, cynical readings, or psychological layering. Lloyd stages an in-your-face feminist manifesto that nevertheless maintains the play's rowdy comedy.

Clinton is referenced, but she does not show up in person, and certainly not as Katherina Baptista; Cush Jumbo, in fact, plays the titular shrew as an obnoxious Jersey girl. Rather, the parallel between Shakespeare's play and the current presidential campaign jumps out in a single line Petruchio speaks to Baptista and the play's other men: "I tell you, 'tis incredible to believe how much she loves me." Janet McTeer's Petruchio is more biker hellion than business mogul, but something in the inflection with which she delivers the line sounds hauntingly familiar and sends a ripple of understanding laughter through the audience.

Actually, it's a voice we've already heard prominently in this production. After Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore) and Tranio (understudy Natalie Woolams-Torres doing a star turn, beat box and all) play their opening dialogue, Tranio refers to "some show to welcome us to town." That show turns out to be a Miss Lombardy Pageant, and as women in glittering red gowns dance across the stage, we hear a voiceover of Donald Trump as emcee (or, at least, an impressionist's take on Trump—the part is not credited in the program). Introduced with familiar Trumpisms, contestants perform in the pageant's talent segment: a baton twirler, a Yankee Doodle Dandy tap dancer, a bit of opera, and then Miss Padua North singing the Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away" while Miss Padua South rides around on a bicycle with increasing furor. This is Bianca (Gayle Rankin) and Katherina, respectively.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's earliest works, if not his first. He uses stock characters (except for Petruchio and Katherina), elements of farce (the play clearly draws from commedia dell'arte conventions), and a storyline in keeping with the misogynist tenor of his Elizabethan culture: Katherina's infamous final speech is an echo of sermons published in that era. He also sets The Taming of the Shrew within the framework of a Warwickshire lord who plays a trick by making the drunk tinker Sly believe himself to be a lord. As part of this "Induction" to the play proper, a troupe of players arrives at the manor house and perform The Taming of the Shrew for Sly (many productions cut the Induction, including Lloyd's.)

Shakespeare wasn't trying to write anything more than a romping, farcical comedy, yet, being Shakespeare, even at this early point in his career he delves deeper than the cultural archetypes and social norms of his own time (a time when a competent queen ruled the realm). Though Petruchio uses hawk-training techniques to "tame" Katherina, he displays a higher degree of respect for her than any of the other men in the play. He also teaches her lessons of respect and gratitude for others, regardless of gender, and by the time we get to the final scene, he and Katherina have formed a team that wins a wager. It is, ultimately, a love story.

Admittedly, I'm speaking from a male perspective, though one tempered by years of being married to a career military officer. Nevertheless, every text-centric production of The Taming of the Shrew that I've seen reveal themselves as love stories with a healthy, mutually respectful marriage at the end (examples include productions by the American Shakespeare Center in 2010 and 2015 and the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory in 2015, the two last year using original production techniques with little rehearsal). In these productions, Kate's final speech is a lesson on marriage—regardless of gender. I won't vouch that this was Shakespeare's intent, but it is what emerges when hewing close to the text in context.

I've also seen over-the-top renditions with all the frenzy and farce of Wrestlemania (the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's 2013 production), as well as highly conceptualized stagings: the two Old American West versions at the Folger and Theater for a New Audience in 2012, the Michael Bogdanov-directed production at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1978, and, especially, the all-male production currently running at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. These tend to rely on ironic line readings or plumb the psychological depths of Katherina (and, to a lesser degree, Petruchio) while condemning the play's contextual culture. These productions also tend to lose their comic verve by the end.

Lloyd plumbs the psychological depths of the contextual culture by making that context current and invoking the presumptive Republican Party nominee. And she keeps the play funny, whether with satirical trappings (Trump as pageant emcee) or the play's plot itself. Katherina doesn't merely tie her sister up at the beginning of the play's third scene; Jumbo's Katherina has Bianca in a wheelbarrow dangling over a pit. Mark Thompson's set design looks like a third-tier traveling circus (a visual comparison to the current presidential campaign, perhaps) with class C mini-motorhomes in the background (each serving as Bianca's and Katherina's quarters). Though the women wear ubiquitous post-1960s party dresses, Thompson dresses most of the men in suits with fedoras, giving the play a 1950s–'60s Frank Sinatra vibe.

The exception is Petruchio, wearing a leather jacket, death's head t-shirt, and jeans and driving a motorhome rig bearing the license plate "Pisa Ass." I first saw the incomparable McTeer on the RSC stage back in the mid-1980s and have been infatuated with her skills and bearing on stages and screens ever since. Learning that she was playing Petruchio confirmed our determination to add this production to our schedule, and, as I anticipated, McTeer lifts it to a top-tier Shakespeareance. "A mad-brain rudesby full of spleen," Katherina describes Petruchio, who will "woo a thousand…yet never means to wed where he hath wooed." This description becomes a chief character cue for McTeer's portrayal of the man. She makes her first appearance by emerging from a trap door, leaving behind the clutches of a negligee-clad woman. With a gangly cockiness, McTeer's Petruchio proffers flirtatious glances at women in the audience and approaches Kate as just another easily won conquest.

Unlike Petruchios in most productions of this play that I've seen, McTeer's doesn't noticeably fall in love with Katherina. At most he displays appreciation of her sex appeal. "Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well," spoken parenthetically, is the only obviously truthful thing he says the entire play. In the wit-games of their first meeting, he's merely toying with her, until, after he professes he is a gentleman, she strikes him. "I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again," McTeer's Petruchio says menacingly. "If you strike me you are no gentleman," Jumbo's Katherina replies snarkily, a point at which this Petruchio realizes he's going to have to intensify the battle of wills to match her. Jumbo, delivering her lines with a thick whine, does not provide a strong foil to McTeer's Petruchio, but it is the purpose of this production that, a force of personality though she may be, she should not upstage Petruchio. Great acting isn't always in stealing the spotlight, and Jumbo displays her skills by maintaining a comic strain throughout her portrayal, despite all the abuse she suffers. She also keeps her Katherina at arm's length from our sympathy until we gradually warm to her as she increasingly bends to Petruchio's will. Not until the end does she discard the comedy, but at that point the production has shifted into a different play from the one Shakespeare wrote. Describing that requires a spoiler alert(click here to continue this review with the spoiler), except to say that for the curtain call, members of the cast rip off their suit coats and shirts and dance to "Bad Reputation," the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts hit (since covered by Avril Lavigne), blaring over the speakers where the voice of Trump earlier intoned his opinions on female virtues.

Conceptualized readings of any Shakespeare play by necessity require much alteration of the text. Lloyd has trimmed the play down to a 1:45 run time without intermission, and she does this primarily by excising redundant exposition Shakespeare. In fact, at the point he should be providing to Tranio an account of the off-stage wedding, Gremio (Judy Gold), in direct address to the audience, announces he's going to skip all the exposition that's in the original text and rail about the state of a culture being taken over by women. Here is the production's lone reference to Clinton: after decrying the fact that this very production has a woman as its director, Gremio expresses shock that a woman is running for president. He longs for the good old days when you could cop a feel of women while boarding an airliner.

From this detour, the rest of the truncated play streamlines its plot to focus primarily on Petruchio's reshaping of Katherina in his image of proper womanhood. Despite the cuts, McTeer presents as authentic a Petruchio as I've seen. Even in my own assessment of the play's purposes, and my regard for the textual Petruchio's true feelings for Katherina and his ultimate goal of a lasting, trusting love relationship, there's a lot about the guy that's hard to swallow. I have trouble reconciling how any woman could love him, especially one as headstrong and independent as Katherina. In McTeer's playing, it's hard not to find the scoundrel appealing.

Baptista, wearing a tan suit and fedora, holds up a wad of cash before Petruchio in leather jacket, unbuttoned checkered shirt, death's head t-shirt, black jeans, and black outback hat. They are standing behind a table with chairs. Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson, left) is all about money when it comes to matters of marriage with his daughters, whether it concerns Katherina to Petruchio (Janet McTeer, right) or Bianca to Lucentio in the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Joan Marcus, Public Theater.

Another intriguing portrayal is turned in by Latanya Richardson Jackson as Baptista. More circus manager than father, Jackson's Baptista is all business, showing little affection for either daughter (he plays no favorites). He does insist that Petruchio must win Katherina's love, "for that is all in all," he says, but this is a practical concern rather than a romantic notion. At each of the post-wedding feasts, the festivities kick off after Baptista presents to the grooms, Petruchio and Lucentio, a briefcase full of money. The grooms nod and, deal done, it's time for drinks and cigars (and perhaps wagering on your wives).

For a production that so astutely tracks to current events, it's ironic that on the same night we were watching a fictitious beauty pageant as a framing device for The Taming of the Shrew, at a real pageant, U.S. Army Reserve First Lieutenant Deshauna Barber was being crowned Miss USA. There is precedent for a soldier competing in a beauty pageant, by the way. I wrote a profile on Jill Stevens, the 2007 Miss Utah and a member of the Army National Guard, the first combat veteran (she served as a medic in Afghanistan) to compete in the Miss America pageant. This past year I happened to be working with some of her Guard colleagues, and they brought her up in conversation. As they talked about her, it wasn't her beauty that doth made them like her well, but the way she earned their unit distinction in combat and training competitions (she was, measurably, one of the fittest members of the unit).

Thus, in the real beauty pageant played out on June 5, Barber's response to a judge's question, like Katherina's in Taming of the Shrew, also dealt with duty and obedience: the question was whether the Secretary of Defense was right to order integrating women into combat roles. There was nothing rote about Barber's reply, though. "We are just as tough as men," she said. "As a commander of my unit, I’m powerful, I am dedicated, and it is important that we recognize that gender does not limit us in the United States Army.”

Now there's a feminist manifesto.

Eric Minton
June 14, 2016

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