`The Tamer Tamed' not restrained

Theater Review

December 19, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Imagine a combination of Stomp, Dancing at Lughnasa and Riverdance, with a defiant dose of women's liberation thrown into the mix.

That's the exuberant scene that erupts about a quarter of the way into the Royal Shakespeare Company's zesty production of John Fletcher's The Tamer Tamed at Washington's Kennedy Center.

Like the frenzied dance scene in Brian Friel's Lughnasa, the dance in Tamer Tamed is an all-female explosion of uninhibited jubilation. Like Riverdance, it involves percussive footwork. Like Stomp, it is accompanied by clanging pots, pans and ladles, which serve as makeshift musical instruments.

And most importantly, like a women's lib rallying cry, the dance is performed to a song whose refrain is: "The women shall wear the breeches."

That sentiment is the driving force behind this rarely performed 1611 play. Written as a table-turning response to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Fletcher's comedy takes place well after Petruchio and Kate's tempestuous wedding.

Kate has died of unexplained causes and Petruchio, who has maintained his reputation as a "woman-tamer" and "wife-breaker," has a new bride - the seemingly compliant Maria. But Maria is taking no chances. At the instigation of Kate's younger sister, Bianca, Maria borrows a page from Aristophanes' Lysistrata and vows not to sleep with her husband until he mends his ways.

Possibly for the first time in 370 years, Fletcher's play is being performed in repertory with its Shakespearean prequel. The two have been reunited by director Gregory Doran, who has replaced Fletcher's title, The Woman's Prize, with its subtitle, The Tamer Tamed, and also renamed some of Fletcher's characters to coincide with their Shakespearean counterparts.

Best of all, the same actors continue their roles, with the significant adjustment that Alexandra Gilbreath, who played Petruchio's wife, Kate, in Shrew, now plays his second wife, Maria, in Tamer. Gilbreath's impassioned Maria has clearly learned from obstinate Kate, whose eventual "taming" apparently wrought no change in domineering Petruchio.

Jasper Britton's Petruchio is, if possible, even more dexterous in this play than in its predecessor. Britton's Petruchio is transformed from a crude bridegroom - he's such a vulgar drunk on his wedding night, it's no wonder Maria locks him out - to a woefully flummoxed rejected lover.

Shakespeare's characters have more depth than Fletcher's. This is all the excuse director Doran needs to enhance Tamer with inspired scenes such as the aforementioned dance. Equally inspired is an extended bit of direct-audience address in which Britton's Petruchio hilariously experiments with feigned maladies - raspy throat, limp, croupy cough, wheeze - with which he hopes to win Maria's sympathy.

Like Shrew, Tamer has a subplot involving a secondary set of lovers. This one is thin at best, however, and Naomi Frederick and Daniel Brocklebank deliver largely one-dimensional performances. But as feminist ringleader Bianca, Eve Myles truly comes into her own here - the ingenue-turned-insurgent.

The Royal Shakespeare residency regrettably includes only six performances of Doran's rollicking Tamer. Of those remaining, however, three afford an opportunity to see Tamer and Shrew in a single day - a more amusing foray into the war of the sexes would be difficult to find.

Theater

What: The Tamer Tamed

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow, Dec. 23, 27 and 30

Tickets: $25-$75

Call: 800-444-1324

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