Directed by Arin Arbus under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience, Shakespeare’s early comedy gets the Wild West treatment in this new production of the controversial work. A pianist playing a combination of barroom ditties and snatches of opera sets the scene for this play-within-a-play, providing musical accompaniment throughout the madcap and often unruly performance. The show apparently begins in an American frontier town where a mischievous Lord tricks a drunken tinker into thinking that he is a nobleman that has just come out of a long spell of amnesia.
To celebrate the recovery of his senses and his reacquaintance with his cross-dressed 'wife,' the Lord has an acting troupe perform a matrimonial comedy in the couple’s honor. As in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," this induction seems to lend the main action a didactic quality, an important factor to keep in mind when interpreting the intentions of both playwright and director. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story that follows concerns the marriage prospects of the two daughters, the elder "shrew" Kate and the widely desired Bianca, of "a rich gentleman of Padua" who will only consent to marry off the younger after finding a husband for her less desirable sister.
As with Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," Kate’s beliefs must be sacrificed and her character censured by play’s end to complete the comedic cycle from social discord to cohesion by marriage. Like the Jewish moneylender, she naively believes in the ostensible laws of her society and the personal liberty they seem to grant, making her complete submission to her husband Petruchio the punchline to the play’s running joke about the necessary subjugation of rebels and reprobates to the communal will for the smooth functioning of the body politic. Her fierce individualism was allowed to develop because her father protected her from the reality of her privileged yet limited station, and it must now be repudiated to restore balance to the economic order.
But this is Shakespeare, so what appears at first glance to be a simple reification of rigidly defined class and gender roles quickly becomes a hilarious and complex examination of the fluidity and constructed nature of these very things. Starting with a worker turned aristocrat whose wife is really a manservant, we move on to servants masquerading as their masters and wealthy gentlemen posing as poor tutors. Since we are all actors playing many roles throughout our lives, Kate’s ultimate decision to take on the role of an obedient wife to a man she chose to marry is as much an act of freedom as one of obedience. In this light, Bianca’s marriage of love to Lucentio appears as little more than the acceptance of a social imposition carried out on a whim.
However, these textual subtleties go undeveloped in this production, where Kate’s grotesque treatment by her fortune hunting husband Petruchio is never questioned by Arbus, who directs the other characters to stand around in awkward silence during these moments, a choice that proves neither entertaining nor meaningful. This decision, or lack thereof, reveals Arbus' refusal to take a stance on the matter or impose any personal vision on the proceedings. I suppose that a generous viewer might infer that this is meant to suggest people’s inability to intervene in such abhorrent behavior or condemn our indifference to the suffering around us.
Typical of Arbus' superficial reading are the manic performances of Maggie Siff and Andy Grotelueschen as Kate and Petruchio, who substitute sweaty, slapstick energy for depth and timing. Though occasionally amusing, Matthew Cowles is barely discernible and mostly incoherent as the tinker Christopher Sly, another indication of the broad comedy that Arbus resorts to rather than undertaking a riskier but potentially deeper reading of the text. Similarly, the Wild West setting substitutes spectacle for insight, distancing us from the material so that we are left with neither a greater understanding of Shakespeare’s time nor our own. Like most Broadway productions, "The Taming of the Shrew" gets by on its smooth professionalism without offering anything of daring or nuance. Then again, what can one expect from a production sponsored by Deloitte, the world’s second largest "professional services network."
Click here for more on theater from Oleg Ivanov.