American Players Theatre: Taming of the Shrew and other thoughts…

I first discovered the performed Shakespeare vis a PBS airing of Hamlet from the BBC. Very serious, very traditional, right up my alley. That was followed by the BBC’s Age of Kings, their also very traditional take on Shakespeare’s history plays.

But ever since then theater groups have ever more often felt the need to make Shakespeare relevant or enticing to ‘modern audiences’ by changing the locations, eras, dialects, or costuming to bring a certain freshness I guess. Does it work? Sometimes.

So when this presentation of the Taming of the Shrew opened with a bit of a choreographed mime, I braced for the worst. The five actors came out in brightly colored slick silk-like suits and Mario brothers mustaches dancing round and round making rude gestures and displaying nefarious faces. I feared that Verona was moving to Sicily with made men and mobbed up accents or a Las Vegas dinner show version of the play or worse yet…Shrew: The Musical!

But I needn’t have feared…but we get straight away English pronunciations that allow us to follow the story and dialogue.

And a wonderful phantasmagoria of costumes that define the characters but don’t quite put us in a particular place or era! This worked wonderfully well through out.

And of course in a post BLM world, theaters are re-evaluating their selection process of plays and playwrights, their casting choices, and how they present their selections. This isn’t a sea change for the American Players Theatre. They have been aware of the artistic advantages of diversity for some time. And over the past few years they have been bold in choices in casting and directorial assignments. All to the good!

And in the perceived post pandemic era, theaters have been strapped for revenue, and are doing more with less. And that often means slimmer cast lists and here the Taming of the Shrew makes due with five actors for essentially nine named roles and other sub-characters. This isn’t unusual and actors often play more than one role, particularly if the characters are underlings or don’t appear in the same scenes.

One of APT’s 2021 plays worked with multiple roles of even principal characters very well and that was Cymbeline! And in a sort of turn about is fair play, all of the actors in Cymbeline were women.

screen capture from video by Ed Heinzelman

But at what point are fewer actors too few actors? I am thinking that this presentation of Taming of the Shrew may have stepped over that threshold.

Why? Because by their hats you shall know them. Well in the early going, I was more than a little confused as James Ridge moved about the stage from one pose to another, obviously in conversation, but talking to the hat in his hand. Well it quickly dawned on me that Mr. Ridge was playing three characters…a major principal, Baptista, his own daughter, Bianca, and one of her suitors, Grumio. So you had to be careful…which hat was he wearing? That was the character speaking. Which hat was he holding? That is the other party to the conversation. And obviously Baptista and Bianca have major speaking parts throughout. It did get a bit easier but no less unnerving, when Mr. Ridge opened his jacket while portraying Bianca to reveal his bustier underneath.

This is just a slight quibble for me…and despite enjoying APT’s very effective cross-gender casting, something didn’t quite feel right about Colleen Madden’s Tranio’s impersonation of Lucentio. Ms. Madden played it to the hilt but I just couldn’t get my head around it and sometimes lost the sense that she was playing a male character.

Alejandra Escalante was simply marvelous as Katherine, the ‘shrew’ of the title. Ms. Escalante portrays the character with a certain grace beyond the behavior we’ve come to expect from this part. And she provides some very human moments on her wedding day when Petruchio is decidedly and intentionally late.

And Daniel Jose Molina is the matching and appropriate foil as Petruchio! And the interaction of Petruchio and Katherine as directed by Shana Cooper takes some of the edge off the misogyny inherent to these roles without ever making light of it. ‘Tis the mind that makes the body rich. Yes indeed.

Yes this play is still misogynistic and paternalistic in many ways and without gutting Shakespeare or not performing it at all, directors and casts will need to represent it in an appropriate manner. I think that Ms. Cooper accomplished much here.

This has nothing to do with the performance…but with a 21st Century lens…rather than being a ‘shrew’ does the text support Katherine having a mental illness or some form of Asperger’s or other illness. Can that be played to?

I watched the American Player’s Theatre production The Taming of the Shrew via their streaming At Home option. All photos are courtesy of APT and were downloaded from their website except as noted.

One Reply to “American Players Theatre: Taming of the Shrew and other thoughts…”

  1. Very good review, Ed. You made many excellent observations and I’m glad you also noted the degree to which APT has pushed diversity in their casting and play selections, with wonderful results. I could never accept Kate being “explained” via an illness, however, because she’s not sick, her society is. She finally accepts conforming to the societal standards, at least in the public sphere, as women have had to do for hundreds of years, and are still fighting against ridiculous double standards that continue to weaken both men and women and the societies in which they live, here and around the world.

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