Wednesday, April 04, 2012

THEATER: The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew can be a very funny play -- and probably should be, lest one linger too long on the sexist implications that one either believes are being mocked by Shakespeare or taken to heart -- but Arin Arbus's manic direction for Theatre for a New Audience cannot seem to bear to let well enough alone. Despite having an excellent center in the boisterous -- but ultimately not a buffoon -- Petruchio (Andy Grotelueschen) and his sharp-tongued, iron-jawed would-be-wife Kate (Maggie Siff, who has well-played similar roles on Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy), this production shoots off in a dozen directions at once. Even the program's dramaturgical notes offer only "perspectives" from other scholars, there's no thesis, no backbone.

There are two clear signs of trouble right off the bat; for one, Arbus has inexplicably shifted the setting into the American Frontier, sometime in the 19th century, even though this has absolutely no effect on the show. This has the immediate effect of making Anita Yavich's costume choices seem superfluous; as for set designer Donyale Werle's saloon-like exterior, one keeps expecting Wyatt Earp to show up with a gun. Arbus has also made the choice to include Shakespeare's original Induction (i.e., introduction), which establishes Shrew as a play-within-a-play, performed with the purpose of testing a drunk who has been tricked into believe he is a long-lost lord. Unless you're actively pursuing the theme of identity, or commenting on the seriousness of Kate's eventual subservience, neither of which Arbus is achieving, this is simply flab on the show, and we all know how much comedies benefit from some extra flab and jokes without punchlines. (There's no resolution to this framing device; in fact, the last acknowledgment of the "lord" in the audience is when an actor tells him to shut up, disruptive as he is.)

As for the play within, Petruchio's reverse-psychology and fact-denying wooing are a comic delight, as always, made all the stronger by Groteleuschen's absolute confidence and by Siff's perfect partnering, from gasping double-takes and resolute put-downs to some far-flung spittle and physical comedy. John Keating (who plays Tranio), John Christopher Jones (as old Gremio), and Saxon Palmer (as Hortensio) get in on the more exaggeratedly fun aspects of the wooing, but the rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag, ranging from the diligently expository servant, Biondello (Varin Ayala), to Kate's thanklessly bland father, Baptista (Robert Langdon Lloyd), and simply unbelievable wooers, Lucentio (Denis Butkus) and Kate's sister, Bianca (Kathryn Saffell). You can literally feel the energy draining from the stage when the two leads are absent, which is further evidence that Arbus is not entirely sure what story she aims to communicate with this version of Shrew.

In the final scene, three men bid, entreat, and command their wives to come to them; only the forceful third has any success. Would that this production had taken that "lesson" to heart; in a world in which the next Shakespearean production is just around the corner, there is no compelling reason not to dismiss this one.


Felicity said...

once upon a time, Critics worked in the theatre...

Aaron Riccio said...

Not sure what that comment means, nor if it's a good thing or not.