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Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay star in Chris Abraham’s and Barry Avrich’s envisioning of The Taming of the Shrew.

Don Dixon/Stratford Festival

4 out of 4 stars

Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Chris Abraham, Barry Avrich
Starring
Deborah Hay, Ben Carlson
Country
USA
Language
English

For any contemporary director, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is a problem requiring a solution: It's the misogyny of Shrew that needs to be tamed. At Ontario's Stratford Festival last season, Chris Abraham's idea was to insist strongly that this is a play of disguises and dissembling in which we should not take every personality nor every monologue at face value. And, luckily, that is a conceit only amplified by the additional layer of artifice added as Barry Avrich, producer and regular director on the Stratford HD program, moves the show from the theatre to the cinema.

We begin with actor Tom Rooney (who will later play the disguised servant Tranio to strong comic effect) walking on stage to chat about how often he has appeared at the festival but how this is, nonetheless, the first time he has ever got to wear "pumpkin pants." So, from the start, we are to be reminded that this is a show.

There follows a little kerfuffle in the audience: Abraham has revived the character of Christopher Sly, the drunkard for whose benefit the story of the peevish Katherina's wooing by the rough Petruchio is to be told. Now, we've got prominent cast members pretending to be the drunken patron and an overwhelmed pair of ushers. And so we move only gradually into the world of the play in which the angry and unloved Katherina (Deborah Hay) must be married off by her father, the wealthy Baptista (Peter Hutt), if her gentle sister Bianca (Sarah Afful) will ever be able to accept any of her numerous suitors. Theatre is artifice and if Petruchio is dissembling when he insists the sun is the moon, forcing Katherina to agree with pure nonsense, so, too, is Ben Carlson dissembling as he plays Petruchio.

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This framing device – along with completely traditional costuming and staging of the action – then leaves a lot of space in the centre of the play in which Hay and Carlson must explain what game it is that Kate and Petruchio are playing. They do that with both passion and subtlety in two admirable performances.

Both are actors who have a certain earnestness in their stage personae; here, that makes Hay a more soulful Kate than one usually sees and it makes Carlson the most loving and sympathetic of Petruchios. You can guess, since we are playing with layers of truth and artifice, that it helps that he and Hay are partners in real life.

It is standard now to portray the shrew as an angry character who needs to learn compromise and calm rather than wifely obedience, but Hay makes it clear how bitterly unhappy Kate is, a prisoner of both her own rage and of her father's house.

Meanwhile, Carlson reveals a Petruchio who longs to liberate her. He is an intemperate character himself – after all, he decides to marry the infamous Katherina sight unseen. In most productions, that impulsive act is interpreted as a macho dare, but Carlson turns it into an almost instant recognition that he has met his match.

As Bianca's suitors in their silly disguises all fall about themselves, this Kate and Petruchio emerge, very properly, as the smartest couple in the room, a pair who have found a place for their disruptive energies in the smaller society around them. The work they do on Katherina's cloying final speech, in which she preaches sweetness and obedience as wifely duty, is outstanding. Hay turns the text of her submission into a refusal to be humiliated, while Carlson's moved Petruchio greets her pride with tears in his eyes. It is an interpretation that recognizes the righteousness of her anger, yet celebrates her liberation from it. The Merchant of Venice is a play rescued from its anti-Semitism by Shylock's great statement of Jew and Christian's shared humanity: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" Hay and Carlson somehow turn Katherina's infamous concession into that same moment for Shrew's misogyny.

Avrich films the Stratford plays with 12 cameras during the course of one performance, with a session for picking up missed shots afterward, a session for which the audience remains in place. The results here are that every response has been caught on camera and the film can move deftly about the cast registering action and reaction again and again, with the presence of the audience, always visible in the background, amplifying the comedy's social role.

The Stratford HD program, aimed especially at students, does not attempt to turn these plays into movies, but rather to reproduce the effect of the theatre for those who didn't attend. Unusually in that context, this film actually seems to expand on the themes and effects of the theatrical production. After all, as this Katherina moved her Petruchio to tears, one half of the live audience, sitting facing Carlson's back, would have missed a key detail in a remarkable pair of performances.

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The Taming of the Shrew screens at select Cineplex theatres March 12 and 17 (cineplex.com).

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