Vexing `Shrew' entertains


December 16, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

WASHINGTON - For many modern audiences, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is a troubling play that requires a few quick kicks to the misogynistic text to tame it into submission.

The chief problem is the vexing ending. Having had her defiance - not to mention her free will - brainwashed out of her by her resolute bridegroom, newlywed Katherine counsels her fellow brides to "place your hands below your husband's foot." Nowadays this final scene is often performed ironically, suggesting that Kate, not her gloating husband Petruchio, actually has the upper hand.

In the bold, vigorous Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Kennedy Center, however, director Gregory Doran daringly eschews such political correctness. His is an interpretation that hews closely to the text.

He justifies this seemingly reactionary choice in two ways. First, he presents Kate and Petruchio as a pair who are not only made for each other, but who fall in love at first sight. Second, he has staged The Taming of the Shrew in repertory with a lesser-known, table-turning sequel, The Tamer Tamed, written by Shakespeare's younger contemporary, John Fletcher.

Tamer doesn't begin performances at the Kennedy Center until tomorrow, so it will be the subject of a subsequent review. The question here, then, is how well does Doran's Shrew work on its own?

The answer is mixed. On the one hand, the pheromone-exuding chemistry between Alexandra Gilbreath's Kate and Jasper Britton's Petruchio makes them more equals than rivals. Granted, when they meet, Britton's Petruchio wrestles Gilbreath's tomboyish Kate to the ground. Once he gets her there, however, he tickles her foot, and they end up sitting side by side, laughing.

On the other hand, satisfying as this amorous affinity may be, it creates complications in terms of plot. A shrewish "hellcat," Kate has been considered unmarriageable until Petruchio comes along. And, though his determination to marry Kate may infuriate her, it delights her sweet-natured younger sister, Bianca, who has been forbidden to marry before "Kate the cursed" walks down the aisle.

But if willful Kate is smitten with Petruchio from the git-go, why does she need to be tamed? And even more to the point, if Petruchio immediately falls for Kate - willful ways and all - why would he want to break her spirit? Perhaps these lovers are simply too alike and too set in their ways to behave otherwise.

Doran offers another explanation as well. Petruchio's father has died just before the play begins, and though Petruchio has embarked on a new life, he's clearly still in mourning and not entirely in his right mind. For about half of the production, Britton's Petruchio appears drunk, which is truly odd. More defensibly, Doran emphasizes Petruchio's grief by having Britton place Petruchio's father's portrait on a chair next to him when he delivers the soliloquy explaining his "kill-a-wife-with-kindness" strategy.

Whatever you may feel about Doran's overall approach, Gilbreath and Britton's performances are the captivating center of a production that is never less than a spirited joy. An early work, Shrew is far from Shakespeare's most subtle or poetic play, and Doran's broad direction accentuates the play's high jinks, beginning with a raucous opening street scene and including lots of slapstick and even a touch of comic musical accompaniment, when the onstage band plays slower and slower, as Petruchio is later and later to his wedding.

Eve Myles is a lovely, sweet-natured Bianca; Ian Gelder imbues the sisters' father with parental concern; and the servants are a nimble, amusing lot, especially Rory Kinnear's Tranio, Nicolas Tennant's Grumio and Simon Trinder's Biondello. Only Daniel Hawksford's Lucentio, the suitor who wins Bianca's heart, seems earthbound.

Doors are the central motif of Stephen Brimson Lewis' set. At least 16 of them are on stage at the beginning, including several suspended from the flies. Interestingly, only one remains visible when Petruchio brings his bride home, as if to suggest that multiple escape routes are no longer available to her.

Doran's production aims to open doors to an enhanced understanding of one of the more disturbing romances in Shakespeare's canon. Though puzzling in places, it's an attempt that proves as entertaining as it is intriguing.

Taming of the Shrew

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: In repertory with The Tamer Tamed, through Jan. 4

Tickets: $25-$75

Call: 800-444-1324

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