by JK Clarke
The act of taking one of William Shakespeare’s most notoriously sexist plays and turning it on its head by casting a woman in every role is apparently such an appealing idea that two companies are performing an all-female The Taming of the Shrew within the space of a few months this year. First out of the gate is The Queen’s Company, an indie theater ensemble performing their version at The Wild Project in the East Village. The other will be offered by The Public Theater as the first of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions.
The Queen’s Company has indeed put some clever and interesting twists on their Taming of the Shrew. Not so much because of the cast’s gender, but because of certain interesting, innovative and potentially controversial twists. First off, as with many companies, director Rebecca Patterson has eschewed the play within a play concept. The Taming of the Shrew is actually the secondary play, and it hardly needs a summary: Baptista, a Paduan lord, is attempting to marry off his daughters. One, Bianca, is beautiful and has countless worthy suitors. The other, Katharina (aka Kate), is ill-tempered and feared by every man in the region. Baptista will only allow Bianca to be married once Kate is spoken for. One of Bianca’s suitors (who takes on the disguise of a tutor in order to secretly woo her), Hortensio, has a tough and gruff friend, Petruchio, whom he persuades to pursue Kate. Petruchio takes Kate as his bride, then employs reverse psychology and some archaic versions of brainwashing (like sleep and food deprivation) in order win over (and dominate) his betrothed.
Patterson sets a tone of female empowerment in this production by beginning with a man dressed in period clothing who discovers a book from which he reads a passage (which is actually part of one of Petruchio’s speeches later in the play) which declares, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper . . .” He is met by a woman in contemporary clothing (who later turns out to play Kate) and she gives him a knee to the crotch. A (literally) hard-hitting, feminist statement that sets the tone for the forthcoming play. The production is, as Shrew should be, fun and funny, and not to be taken too seriously, despite its anachronistic views on women.
The all-female cast play all the roles convincingly and delightfully. Tiffany Abercrombie’s Katharina is mellower and more bemused than customary, not the rageful, wild tiger as she is often portrayed, which lightens the mood of the piece and makes it more accessible. Catherine Talton (Hortensio) and Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio) not only have convincing chemistry—a George Clooney-esque twinkle in the eye (especially Preston)—but they also bear one another an uncanny resemblance. To the best of my knowledge (nothing in the program would suggest it) they are not related, but The Queen’s Company would be remiss if they did not cast them in one of Shakespeare’s plays that rely heavily on twins or mistaken identity.
The play also provides an incredibly novel, head-scratching, and admittedly quite amusing wrinkle: Bianca (“the pretty one”) is played by a blow-up sex doll, complete with obscene, gaping mouth. Most of her lines have been edited out, but when they are essential, such as in the final scene, her speaking role is performed (quite ably) in ventriloquy by Kelsey Arendt. Though it’s a question worthy of extensive debate, the casting of the more attractive sister as a dummy, for lack of a better term, seems to undermine the production’s feminist message. Is Bianca any less deserving of agency because she’s attractive? Either way, when Lucentio (Amy Driesler) dances the tango with blow-up Bianca, it brings the house down.
Small, independent company Shakespeare, when done well, as it is here, always has much to offer: good theater at a good price and often with an unexpected approach to a known entity. The Taming of the Shrew is perfect fodder for lighthearted classical theater. So, if you don’t feel like standing in line for hours on a hot summer day when you might not even get a seat, I suggest you go with this version.
The Taming of the Shrew. Through May 1 at The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street, between Avenues A & B). www.QueensCompany.org
Photos by Bob Pileggi