No other comedy or tragedy in the Shakespearean canon questions the patriarchal presumptions of Elizabethan society as persistently as The Taming of the Shrew. Yet no other work by the Bard is so often assailed for its sexism. Several distortions are at work in bringing about the common misunderstanding of the comedy, and while the current Charlotte Shakespeare Festival production at the Uptown Green isn't preoccupied with rehabilitating the sexual politics of the script, it comes closer to the playwright's original spirit than any other I've seen.
- Austin Caine
KISS ME KATE: J.R. Adduci as Petruchio and Meghan Lowther as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew
Although ostensibly set in Padua and its vicinity, The Shrew doesn't really arrive there until the final scene of the play. From the first scene through Act 4, we are either in the domain of Baptista Minola and his wildly dysfunctional family or in the disheveled household of the "mad-by-design" Petruchio, who is killing Baptista's daughter Katherina with kindness to tame her. If we're not in either of those places, we're usually on the road in-between.
Suddenly, when Petruchio returns to his father-in-law's place, where Kate's more prized sister Bianca has been wed to the worthy Lucentio, real domestic life finally peeps in. And guess what? Everyday wives of Padua do not blindly obey their husbands! Kate obeys Petruchio with the same net result as when Petruchio took on the Herculean task of marrying Kate: Once again, he cashes in by going against the grain.
If that sounds like the rascally result of one of the fabliaux that Chaucer compiled for his Canterbury Tales, then you're beginning to grasp the spirit of The Shrew. Because the introductory "Induction" of Shakespeare's script is never performed, we forget that the story of Kate and Petruchio is a play-within-a-play, like those in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sorry for the pedantry, but in the 1590s, the unsuspecting King Claudius of The Shrew was a liquored-up tinker named Christopher Sly who'd been tricked into thinking he was a nobleman.
So the pranks that Petruchio and Kate put over on the Paduans are part of another prank that Shakespeare and a bunch of long-forgotten fictional accomplices put over on a fictional tinker. The object was sheer fun.
And so it is again in the lively, stylized version directed by Christian Casper, with Kate, Petrook and the whole shebang transplanted into the wild, wild West of the Arizona Territory, circa 1875. Yonder fish statuary has been outfitted with bandannas, but the Green's frontier is otherwise untouched by set design. Luci Wilson takes on much of the burden of branding Charlotte Shakespeare's production with the imprint of the thrilling days of yesteryear, providing a rich array of Western costumes.
The rest of the work is done by the actors, soaking Shakespeare's lines in Western drawls and occasionally punctuating them with expectorations. J.R. Adduci does the most spittin' and g-droppin' as Petruchio. Since he's not at all PC toward the womenfolk, why stop there? The fantastical garb he chooses to wear to his weddin' is an Injun headdress — pardon me, a Native American ceremonial warbonnet. Given such loose rein, Adduci's flamboyant performance is admirably restrained in retrospect. No vulgar whooping as a Native American, and when Kate wallops him, no rolling eyes or drunken stumbling.
Meghan Lowther, for her part, is as grim and sober as Annie Oakley, lavishing as few tantrums on Kate as you'll ever see. Her defiance is crystallized into an attitude that shuns appeasement or coquetry. The turning point in her chemistry with Petruchio occurs, as has become traditional, in the great "sun-moon" scene on the road back to Padua, and I found myself unexpectedly moved by the concord she reaches with her husband.
Yes, you'll find quality Shakespeare on the Uptown Green at a ridiculously low price, and it extends all the way through the supporting cast. Glynnis O'Donoghue isn't as pert and devious as some Biancas I've seen, but her portrayal argues well for a sister who is merely conventional and beautiful compared to Kate. Popping out of a Jane Austen novel with his grace and good looks, Brian Seagroves is perfectly framed as Lucentio, the man of Bianca's dreams, scheming with the assured poise necessary to outmaneuver his older, uglier rivals and hoodwink Baptista.
Lacking a good chunk of that presentability and savior faire, Field Cantey is well-suited for the role of Lucentio's servant, for Tranio impersonates his master in the plot to win Bianca and does so at a competency level that could only fool a fool. All three of the older men, Baptista and the two rival suitors, fall into this category, and we can be happy for the nice variety we get here. Jonathan Ray is pleasantly mercenary and dim-witted as Baptista, and Terry Gabbard is garrulously inept as Hortensio, the suitor who also slips into disguise and eventually lands a domineering widow. Both of these old-timers pale somewhat compared to Bill McNeff, supremely proficient in his blowhard doddering as Gremio.
Aside from Tranio, servants in the cast are accorded their own special sector of seediness. Bola Ande bestows different eccentricities upon the two different lackeys he plays, and Corlis Hayes turns Petruchio's valet Grumio into a mush-mouthed Gabby Hayes — I hardly understood a word she said, but it didn't matter.
Latecomers to the comedy perform their bit parts with the same high professionalism as the rest of the cast. Yanked from the street in a panic to impersonate Lucentio's father Vincentio, Bill Boyd gives us a sleepy, drunken Pedant who aptly personifies the bad choices we expect Tranio to make. Russell Rowe gives the real Vincentio the dignified respectability and prosperousness he should have, verging on pomposity but never crossing over. And instead of the Widow from Hell that the hapless Hortensio probably deserves, Melissa Frierson is content to make her more woman than the man can handle.
Worth the suggested $5 donation? Darn tootin'. In fact, you might feel a little guilty leaving the Uptown Green without contributing at least three times that much.