"He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak; 'tis charity to shed."
Aaron Posner, who has directed several revelatory productions of the plays of William Shakespeare, turns his eye on that alleged problem comedy, The Taming of The Shrew. By making the decision to set the play in the "wild west" one settles down into seats of the Folger Theatre's Elizabeth stage ready for a rollicking physical evening. The atmosphere is promising. Tony Cisek has created a marvelous saloon set with bar, weathered chandelier and swinging doors. Helen Q. Huang has costumed the actors in period appropriate clothing that is designed to allow the actors freedom of movement and the ability to quickly draw the six shooters adorning many of the characters. Most impressive to the atmosphere is the addition of Cliff Eberhardt as the Blind Balladeer whose musical talents provide an excellent accompaniment to the play. The actors are well cast. There are several Washington DC powerhouse actresses, two of whom are cast in a reversal of gender that for the most part enhances rather than distracts from the play. Yet, something is lacking in this Shrew. For this is the gentlest Taming ever put upon the stage.
It's almost as if, Mr. Posner was afraid to allow the comedy in the text to take center stage. The choices made by the director and his acting company are all justified in the text. Unfortunately, Kate and Petruchio take a back seat to the over the top performances of the supporting characters. The audience will laugh as those servants provide the raucous comedy that should be coming from Petruchio, Kate, Bianca and her suitors. There is also a disquieting feeling that the performances are artificial with a feeling from some of the performances of telegraphing to the audience that they know they are funny rather than allowing the comedy in William Shakespeare's text to speak for itself.
This is the tale of Baptista Minola, a wealthy merchant, here played as a female by the always excellent Sarah Marshall. Baptista has two daughters, the younger Bianca (Sarah Mollo-Christensen), sought after by two suitors Hortensio (Marcus Kyd) and Gremio (Craig Wallace). The elder sister Katherine (Kate Eastwood-Norris) is shunned because of her fiery temper. Baptista vows that Bianca cannot wed until Katherine is married. Hortensio recruits his friend, Petruchio (Cody Nickell) who agrees, initially because of Katherine's dowry. Meanwhile a third suitor for Bianca appears, Lucentio (Thomas Keegan) who disguises himself as Bianca's tutor in order to woo her, making his servant, Tranio (the game Holly Twyford) pretend to be her master and present herself as Bianca's suitor. Petruchio turns the tables on Katherine treating her as she treats others in order to tame his shrew of a wife. Returning home for her sister's wedding, will Katherine prove that she is tamed?
One cannot fault the actors in this production. Danny Scheie in the small role of Grumio, Petruchio's "trusty, flamboyant servant" takes full opportunity to sting with wit every one of his lines. Marcus Kyd gamely takes the abuse when Hortensio attempts to disguise himself as a music teacher showing fine abilities with the comedy inherent in his character. Sarah Marshall's Baptista is long suffering, but with a short fuse and the long barrel of shot gun. She uses her slight stature well to make Baptista's stances well known to the crowded ensemble on the small Folger stage. Thomas Keegan and Sarah Mollo-Christensen are sweet as the lovebirds Lucentio and Bianca, which unfortunately makes the revelation that Bianca is the truly disobedient daughter ring false in the final scene.
Cody Nickell's Petruchio tames with words more than with deeds his mate, Katherine. The famous wooing scene is not very physical, yet the sentiments are genuine. Mr. Nickell's delivers the most heartfelt "he that knows better how to tame a shrew" speech. It is clear that his Petruchio genuinely loves Katherine and wants her to see the light, rather than physically forcing the issue. Kate Eastwood-Norris begins as only the latest in a long line of recent Katherines who begin the play either crying or (not in this production) abused. We meet Katherine drowning her sorrows in a bottle of alcohol. While this can be justified in the text as Katherine makes it very clear that she is jealous of the love and attention heaped on her seemingly perfect little sister, just once it would be nice to see a performance in which Katherine's "shrewish" behavior was taken as fact as part of her personality and the director would allow the comedy to happen naturally without worrying about the acceptable for the 16th century misogyny in the text. Despite this, Ms. Eastwood-Norris is very good as Katherine. It is very clear that this is a love match and the famous submission speech at the end of the play is delivered by Ms. Eastwood-Norris as the revelation of an equal partner not a beaten into wifely submission wife.
The Folger Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew will be performed through June 10, 2012. For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.folger.edu.