Household Kates

I was very apprehensive about seeing Peter Hinton’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. First of all, I had seen his Dutchess of Malfi and part of his Swanne trilogy, and I rather dreaded a black-leather Shrew. Then I heard he was setting it in period, and working all kinds of Elizabethan “stuff” into the show – and I worried for other reasons. The Swanne, after all, was a nine-hour three-play monster of a work, and that was only after cutting down from about fifteen hours. So was I in for a three-hour Shrew stuffed with directorial conceits?

To a considerable extent, yes. But I liked it in spite of it all.

The most important thing to recognize about Shrew is that it is a romantic comedy with a happy ending. Kate and Petruchio should fall in love at first sight, that love should be believable to the audience and believable in the world of the play – it should be believable working with the text and not against it. And if you get that right, you get the play right, and nothing else you do can truly ruin it.

This production got that right. I may have seen as many as half a dozen Shrews over the years, and I think this was the most persuasive pair of lovers of any of these. Evan Buliung was appropriately rough as Petruchio, an aspect that many directors (including Richard Monette in the two prior Stratford productions I saw) tend to flinch from fully revealing, lest it poison the comedy, but that roughness is a vital element in his personality, and must have something to do not so much with his ability to tame Kate (note that he never lays a hand on her in anger) but her attraction to him (there is no other man in the play with his brute animal magnetism). And Irene Poole was an absolute wonder as Kate, fully persuasive in her initial love, in her hurt and fury when she thinks he has left her at the altar, in her bewilderment and active resistance to her “taming,” and in her ultimate decision to seek harmony rather than victory. They were a wonderful pair to watch.

And the Elizabethan setting supported the interpretation of the play. Shrew is often given a more modern setting as if to give a feminist gloss to Kate’s rebellion. I recall a funny but not emotionally persuasive production with a Wild West setting mounted Central Park starring Morgan Freeman and Tracy Ullman, where Ullman played Kate as a kind of Annie Oakley; I recall as well the Stratford production from 1988 with Colm Feore and Goldie Semple, set in Italy of the 1950s. The problem with settings like these is that they do not support the narrative. The quest for marital harmony, which inevitably does involve prizing that harmony above independence, and certainly above victory, will endure as long as marriage does, and is an eternal theme, and inasmuch as the “taming” is about that quest it’s a timeless story as well. But that quest for harmony is also a quest for harmony within a particular social order, and when that social order itself is actively subject to question, then the personal, for lack of a better way of putting it, becomes political, with potentially deadly consequences for the drama. Setting it in Elizabethan days doesn’t make the audience complicit in the then-reigning social order, but does enable us to focus on the quest for harmony, and to bracket, to a certain degree, the contemporary political questions.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Hinton was not willing to leave it at that, and has stuffed his production with a dozen other conceits, some of which work well, others do no harm, and some are simply inexplicable – but regardless, there are altogether too many of them. I enjoyed the full use made of the Induction – partly because Ins Choi makes a very winning Christopher Sly and partly because I think the Induction serves an important distancing function. I enjoyed the addition of a number of Elizabethan-era songs during transitions – I felt at times like I was at a Silly Sisters concert, and found myself singing along under by breath (I hope). But other choices were far more questionable – none more so than the decision to turn the Lord of the Induction into Queen Elizabeth herself, and to have her wander about the stage throughout the production. This was distracting and utterly pointless. I’m sure Hinton had something in mind about the irony of a play like this being written when there was a female “King” of England, but that has nothing to do with the drama and, lo and behold, the only use Hinton ever finds for this distraction was as a mechanism to wreck Kate’s big speech about female deference.

Two additional conceits were interesting, if not ultimately successful. One was the decision to cast a woman as Grumio – and have her play Grumio as a woman. This makes no sense whatsoever, and made some scenes downright confusing. But it also threw off some interesting sparks, particularly between Grumio and Kate back at Petruchio’s place, as it is hinted none-too-subtly that Petruchio has had “use” of Grumio, and Kate seems to be aware of this dimension to their relationship. In general, the decision seemed more distracting than anything else – in spite of Lucy Peacock’s game turn in the role, which she seemed to really be enjoying – but in one scene it was inspired: when Petruchio arrives at his wedding riding a cart pulled by Grumio, helmed with a horsehair crest, a bit between her teeth.

The other was the decision to take the line, “Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?” to refer to an actual disability under which Kate suffers. And, indeed, Irene Poole limping about the stage. Thinking about this choice before seeing the play, I couldn’t help thinking of The Goodbye Girl and Richard Dreyfus, playing Richard III in the world’s worst production of that play, begging the director (whose concept is that the King was a screaming queen) to let him have his hump, and how this was, basically, the inverse situation. But this conceit fell into the category of “harmless” – it didn’t distract, but didn’t add anything either. I asked Buliung prior to seeing the show how the limp impacts Petruchio – how it shapes how he feels about Kate – and he said, basically, that he (Petruchio) doesn’t see it, sees who she is inside not that she limps. Which I basically don’t buy at all – he’s bound to be affected by it in some way, and there are many choices he could have made as to what way that is – but it is probably the reason why I felt the choice turned out to be an empty one in performance, neither adding nor meaningfully subtracting from the show.

The other distraction was the blocking of the show. Hinton has a penchant for plonking somebody – even groups of people – down in one corner of the stage and letting them stand or sit there with their backs to the audience. If you happen to be seated on that side of the stage, you’ve suddenly got an obstructed view – and if you don’t, you’ll still notice that a certain part of the stage has suddenly gone static. And one scene in particular – the arrival at Petruchio’s home – is staged inside an open frame of a house seemingly designed to make it impossible to see anyone properly. It’s an impressive piece of scenery, don’t get me wrong – but it crushes the scene to death.

(On the other hand, the costumes are uniformly magnificent, with required special mention of the elderly Gremio’s rampant codpiece.)

As for the supporting performances, they were uniformly excellent, but I want to highlight in particular Stephen Ouimette as an exceptionally fatherly Baptista, convincingly pained rather than exasperated by his elder daughter, and Ben Carlson as a fast-talking and fast-moving Tranio. But really, as with so many productions this season what is notable is how strong the cast is across the board.

Overall, very much a pleasant surprise given my apprehensions, but still marred by a director who badly needs to learn how to kill some of his little darlings.

Addendum: Stratford built a fifth stage this year, the “Festival Pavillion,” a temporary outdoor stage behind the Festival theater, on which they are doing something called: Shakespeare’s Universe: Her Infinite Variety. What this is, basically, is a data dump of all the research on the place of women in Shakespeare’s day that Peter Hinton did for his Shrew but couldn’t manage to stuff into that play – even the little darlings he did manage to kill have a second lease on life here. Whatever this is, it isn’t a play, and for most of the 75 minutes it isn’t anything coherent at all – part lecture, part pantomime – and more akin to something you might see at a Renaissance Fair than something appropriate for Stratford. Towards the end, we get snippets of two plays, one of which – about a trial for witchcraft – firmly holds the attention, largely due to the considerable talents of Karen Robinson as the accused witch. The other is interesting mostly for revealing that Geena Davis might have managed to have a career back in the 17th century. I’ve seen many of the actors do good work elsewhere in the Festival, and I look forward to doing so again – not that they don’t throw themselves into this, but there’s not much they can do with the formless thing they were given by the writer/director.