Shakespeare in the Park’s First Serving of the Summer Misses Its Mark
by JK Clarke
It might seem impertinent to be harshly critical of a free performance of a beloved play in an idyllic setting, but blame it on The Public Theater’s history of consistently first rate productions at their iconic summertime Shakespeare in the Park series at the Delacorte Theater. Sadly, this season’s first offering, The Taming of the Shrew, is as disappointing as biting into the first watermelon of season only to find it tasteless and dry. And it’s not for director Phyllida Lloyd’s daring—but not unique—approach of using an all female cast in this Shakespearean comedy notorious for its outsized misogyny. In fact, just two months ago an Off-Off Broadway production of The Taming of the Shrew by The Queens Company employed that very device and the result was a far funnier, sharper and more thought-provoking theatrical experience.
Like most contemporary productions, this one discards the Christopher Sly “Induction” wrapper that introduces the play as a ruse played on a drunkard, but uses a beauty pageant scene, hosted by none-other than GOP Presidential nominee, reality-TV character, and real estate con man Donald Trump, whose voice booms over the loudspeaker, introducing and objectifying the female contestants, and promising the winner a “hUUUGE prize.” Sigh. One contestant comes out twirling a baton, singing Pat Benatar’s 1979 arena-rock anthem, “Heartbreaker” (“You’re a heart breaker, dream maker, love taker. Don’t you mess around with me.” Okay, we get it.). Then two young ladies dressed like star spangled cowgirls on a motocross bicycle with LED-lit wheels emerge onto the circus ring of stage. They turn out to be sisters, Bianca and Katherina. Cute, curly blond Bianca (Gayle Rankin), in a cowboy hat, American flag vest, and not-blond Katherina (the too over-the-top Cush Jumbo) who flies into a rage and drags her off the podium before the number ends. Thusly are we introduced to the sisters whose father Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson) is attempting to marry them off. He advises Bianca’s numerous suitors, however, that she will not be wooed until cantankerous Kate is betrothed. Naturally, that starts her admirers scheming and one, Hortensio (a very able Donna Lynne Champlin), realizes that his rather crude old pal Petruchio (Janet McTeer) might just be the perfect match for Katherina: he’s a gold-digging alpha male who doesn’t suffer fools. Petruchio immediately, upon meeting Katherina, declares his intention to marry her and sets out to “tame” her notoriously fiery temperament. Meanwhile, the others go about wooing Bianca. And there’s your play which, like all Shakespeare comedies, ends with lessons learned and just about everyone happily wed.
What sets Shrew apart from other of Shakespeare’s comedies—all of which contain some elements which are socially anachronistic today—is the extreme treatment of women as “chattel” or property to be bought, sold and tamed. It can be argued that the conceit, originally written in the late 1590s, was deliberately outrageous even for the time. But certainly contemporary directors have always had to grapple with the outlandish sexism. Most often, the material is presented as absurd and viewed through a vaudevillian or slapstick lens. Audiences get it. They don’t have to be told that the things being said onstage are “bad.” Lloyd, however, makes some very disheartening decisions, most notably adding lines (a cardinal sin, in my opinion) and having standup comic Judy Gold (who plays Bianca suitor Gremio) go completely off-script, breaking the fourth wall to perform a (presumably) deliberately hackneyed standup bit, which detracted even more from her awkward presence on stage. While I like Gold’s standup work and have enjoyed her in television roles, she is out of her depth performing Shakespeare.
As much as I love Shakespeare (I’ve reviewed over 50 productions in the past three years), the only enjoyable element I found in this “professional” production was Mark Thompson’s rustic, dust-bowl era carnival/circus set, that seemed a little too large for the action. And, unfortunately, the costumes (also Thompson) didn’t match the circus theme, with characters sporting impossible to differentiate, gangster-esque suits that would’ve fit better in a production of Guys and Dolls. None of the performances stood out, and I found Janet McTeer’s overly dramatized, husky-voiced Petruchio (whose dialect changed throughout the show) to be one-dimensional and irritating not for what he said, but how he said it. McTeer wasn’t playing Petruchio, she was playing a woman in drag playing Petruchio, so we never got to connect to his character.
Despite the rousing finale (Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”—another “subtle” music cue) at the play’s end that rallied the dozing crowd, the more telling reaction was the virtual absence of raucous laughter during the core of the play. The Taming of the Shrew, is a beautifully written play, but its real value is as an over-the-top, outrageous, madcap comedy. Genteel laughter throughout the piece is a sign of failure, not success, and that was the mood of this one.
What’s more, the idea of trying to shoehorn an electoral message into a Shakespeare play is misguided at best and infuriating at worst. It’s not that anyone in the audience was offended by the Trump-bashing, but that it’s contrived and tiresome. We go to the theater to escape the garbage that’s re-hashed in the news or on Facebook. Theater is meant to be a refuge, and the audience in this production never gets a chance to escape.
The Taming of the Shrew. Through June 26 at the Delacorte Theater (in Central Park near West 81st Street and the Central Park West entrance). www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus