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Why remove the conflict from The Taming of the Shrew?

Kevin MacDonald and Sophie Goulet in The Taming of the Shrew.

David Hou

2 out of 4 stars

The Taming of the Shrew
Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Ted Witzel
Sophie Goulet, Kevin MacDonald
Canadian Stage
Shakespeare in High Park
Runs Until
Saturday, August 31, 2013

A group of young men and women are watching a groom insult and humiliate his bride on their wedding day. Do they protest or intervene? No, they stifle laughs and pull out their iPhones to film the incident – with plans, no doubt, to post it to YouTube and then their Facebook feeds afterward.

Director Ted Witzel's updated production of The Taming of the Shrew, playing in repertory with Macbeth as part of Canadian Stage's Shakespeare in High Park, suggests that maybe we haven't progressed that much as a society in 420 years. Given recent incidents of videos going viral of young women being treated more brutally than Petruchio treats Katherina, it's hard to entirely disagree with that thesis.

Not that Witzel pushes the identification factor all that far. He has set Shakespeare's most problematic comedy amid the perennially easy target of the upper class – or "super rich kids with nothing but fake friends," to quote the Frank Ocean groove that blasts over the start of the play.

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Shakespeare's induction, often useful for framing the play's misogyny, is cut. Instead, this Taming of the Shrew opens with Katherina (Sophie Goulet) wandering onto the outdoor stage's balcony smoking a cigarette, in a punk-grunge combo of dark-red highlights and ripped stockings that make her look scarily similar to the part-time dominatrix who used to cut my hair in Montreal in the 1990s.

"Kate the Curst" peers down disdainfully at the fashionistas of a postmodern Padua who strut about toting Holt Renfrew bags and Starbucks coffees in colourful costumes that suggest Clueless given an America's Next Top Model spin. (Astrid Janson is the designer.)

Many of those below are eager to marry Katherina's younger sister, Bianca (a pink-haired pixie in Jennifer Dzialoszynski's delightful performance) – the impediment being that their father Baptista (Hume Baugh) insists that the ill-tempered Katherina be married off first.

Enter Petruchio (Kevin MacDonald) – who lusts after Baptista's fortune, and is prepared to marry his daughter to get it. His strategy to tame Kate: Starve and emotionally abuse her until she caves to his every whim.

Ha, ha, ha? Witzel's production gives it a go trying to even out Petruchio and Katherina's status and make this misogynistic comedy work in a modernized setting – having them fall madly in love here at first sight, for instance, in an uncharacteristically tongue-tied moment for both characters that goes on long enough that it begins to feel like a parody.

This is a double error: It removes the conflict from the rest of the play, and instead of mitigating Petruchio's ghastly gaslighting, makes it seem even more perverse. Despite accomplished emoting from MacDonald and Goulet – and occasional thought-provoking moments like the iPhone wedding scene – the shrew-taming subplot never makes much sense.

Witzel has greater success with the wooing of Bianca – the part of the comedy that, thankfully, remains at least a little funny. Greg Gale, in particular, shines as Hortensio, nailing the physical comedy and speaking the verse with verve. In the overlong music-video sequences that separate the scenes, his on-and-off relationship with a wealthy widow (Philippa Domville) is also fleshed out to fine effect.

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The main twist here is that Witzel turns Lucentio, one of the young men seeking Bianca's hand, into Lucentia, played by a likeable Tiana Asperjan.

In the original, Lucentio disguises himself as a scholar "cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages" to get close to Bianca in the original; here, much is made of Lucentia's status as "cunning linguist" – and she teaches Bianca French using the poem Lesbos from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal.

Ultimately though, this is one of those stage productions that in aiming to be queer-positive ends up coming off as mildly homophobic. Why make such a big deal of two women wooing in a fictional world that apparently allows them to wed? (Gremio, an elderly suitor, gags about it at length.) Similarly, as entertaining as Ryan Hollyman's faux-hawked servant Biondello is, must we perpetuate the stereotype of of gay men as neutered little nuggets?

And not to be too much of a buzz-kill, but should a production aimed, in part, at families suggest that smoking is a cool, anti-establishment thing to do? Witzel's production could use a little taming in the cliché department.

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