It is not one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” but The Taming of the Shrew, of course, poses significant problems. It is impossible for a contemporary audience to view the work without feeling queasy over the premise: a spirited woman “tamed” by her new husband – through what today’s viewer recognizes as an abusive process: starvation, sleep deprivation and the like.
So what’s a theatre company to do? Choose not to stage it? Perhaps, but what a loss that would be, because beyond its controversial premise, Shrew is a fine play: a fascinating character study, skillfully and consistently drawn – and very funny.
This is evident in director Meg Roe’s production, which opened Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival on Thursday night. In her hands, Shrew is the absolute romp Shakespeare designed it to be, with a strong, believable and yes, even beautiful love story at its heart.
Roe focuses on two essential elements of the play: its humour, and what she interprets as a real love match between Kate (Lois Anderson) and Petruchio (John Murphy). In Roe’s vision, Kate isn’t just a challenge to be won – and conquered – by Petruchio, but a woman he truly desires.
In Shrew, Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Dawn Petten) has many suitors, but her father (Bernard Cuffling) refuses to allow her to wed until the difficult Kate – aggressive, argumentative, shrewish – is married off. Then Petruchio comes to town, looking for a wealthy wife, and he accepts his friend Hortensio’s (Kevin Kruchkywich) proposal to win Kate’s hand – despite her difficult reputation. Her family has money, and Petruchio enjoys a challenge, setting the stage for a raucous battle of wills.
In the production’s finest scene, Kate and Petruchio meet – and it is love at first sight (at least for him; from where I was sitting, it was impossible to gauge her immediate response). Alas, the taming must begin. But Murphy – whose performance is simply brilliant – is convincing as a man in love, enacting a distasteful psychological experiment in order to create a fertile space where this marriage, this relationship, can grow.
Anderson gives a fine performance as well, roaring onto the stage with a misunderstood woman’s battle cry, all sound and fury; and a little more than two hours later, tackling Kate’s supremely difficult speech in the final scene with a quieter but highly emotional grace, and an unexpected complexity – addressing, at times, her father, rather than her husband. She manages to convey that she is speaking as a woman in love; not a woman oppressed. When she speaks of a wife placing her hands below her husband’s foot, it is possible not to flinch, and to be taken in by the tender moment that follows.
In between, Roe (who is best known as an actor) highlights the humour – with varying degrees of success – refusing to not have a blast with a play that was fun before it was controversial. The farce is bolstered by a strong supporting cast: Kruchkywich is terrific as a lovelorn suitor to Bianca posing as a schoolteacher to woo her; the scene-stealing Kayvon Kelly is a marvel as Petruchio’s servant Grumio; and Cuffling is quietly hilarious. Even at its silliest (and sometimes it’s too silly), this Shrew is never in danger of losing its soul, of being “the mustard without the meat.”
(It was almost delightful enough to block out a downpour of rain outside the Bard tent and distract from the terrible chill in the air as we continue to suffer here through our West Coast June-uary.)
The sets are inventive and fun, the transitions deftly applied by a cast moving, sometimes in a sort of dance, to Patrick Pennefather’s lovely, Beethoven-influenced compositions. Not surprisingly, Roe – who started with Bard as a sound designer – pays a lot of attention to what we hear as well as what we see. The soundtrack provides some laughs as well, in particular during a wonderful scene where Kruchkywich demonstrates his comic – if not necessarily his musical – prowess.
In a musical scene shortly before the resolution, Grumio strums a guitar and sings a 19th-century Neopolitan love song, Io te voglio ben assaie. For all the chaos that precedes it, all the farce and stage business and at times over-the-top sight gags, everything is suspended here: It is quiet, and beautiful – unforgettable. It’s a musical reflection of what happens when two people – maybe angry, or disappointed, or bored – meet, and the world gets quiet, and, just for a moment, stops.
The Taming of the Shrew is at Vanier Park until Sept. 22.