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theatre review

"He that knows better how to tame a shrew, now let him speak."

Before heading back to the bedroom to continue psychologically torturing his new wife in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio challenges us to offer an alternative. In Chris Abraham's new production of the play at the Stratford Festival, a clearly conflicted Ben Carlson, the actor playing Petruchio, leaves a long pause at this moment, scanning the audience from left to right as if he's genuinely seeking our advice – or our consent to continue his abuse of Katherina.

It's like one of those Ontario public awareness ads currently airing, that aim to stop sexual harassment and violence by asking bystanders to step up: "When you do nothing, you're helping him." The audience on opening night did nothing.

And so, suddenly, we were all accomplices in Petruchio's cruel plan to continue his campaign of starvation and sleep deprivation. As the fellow filming a sexual assault on his phone in the PSA says in his own aside: "Thanks for keeping your mouth shut." I wonder what would happen if an audience member spoke up in this moment? Try it please, and let me know – I'm at knestruck@globeandmail.com.

Abraham's production of The Taming of the Shrew – hilarious before intermission, deeply unsettling and implicating after – begins by offering a template for spectatorial intervention. William Shakespeare's play starts with an "induction" – a meta-theatrical framing device that sees a rowdy drunk named Sly get thrown out of a pub and pass out. When he comes to, a troupe of players trick him into believing he is a lord and put on a play for him – that play being The Taming of the Shrew.

In Abraham's staging, Sly is a rowdy drunk audience member – a blogger, instead of a tinker! – who objects to an attempt by the Stratford company to put The Taming of the Shrew and its dramatic misogyny into context. "Why don't you just do the play?" he blusters, in a delirious scene that manages to lampoon Shakespeare purists, Canadian theatre critics, other Stratford productions and Abraham's previous work in a few short minutes.

What's shocking then is that, after the induction is over, Abraham and his cast of actors "just do the play" on a mostly open stage in a perfectly executed commedia dell'arte-inspired production full of pratfalls and pumpkin pants. But the result is subversive in its own subtle way.

There are two main threads in The Taming of the Shrew: Petruchio's taming of Katherina (Deborah Hay), the older "shrewish" daughter of Baptista (Peter Hutt); and everyone else's wooing of Bianca (Sarah Afful), his younger daughter. Lucentio (Cyrus Lane, Shatneresque – a nod to the first actor to play the part at Stratford?) switches identities with his servant Tranio (Tom Rooney) to gain access to Bianca – but Hortensio (Mike Shara) and the rich old Gremio (Michael Spencer-Davis, in a Pantelone nose) have their own plans to get consent to marry her. Consent from her father, that is.

These scenes are served up with all the casual violence and lunacy of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Rooney's Tranio and Gordon S. Miller as the servant Biondello are the show-stoppingly funniest, the wily Bugs Bunny and innocent Tweety Bird amid a pack of Elmer Fudds.

In Abraham's production, this male competition is revealed for what it truly is – and it has nothing at all to do with Bianca. No, it's one long contest to determine whose Willy Shakespeare is the longest. Designer Julie Fox gives us bigger and bigger codpieces and phallic props – until ridiculous heights are reached when Petruchio arrives, late to his own wedding, accompanied by the largest penis-shaped object that has ever been seen on Stratford's Festival Theatre. (Unless you consider Stratford's thrust stage itself the biggest penis-shaped object of them all.)

By the final scene of the play, the true misogyny of Bianca's suitors – successful or otherwise – has been exposed, as they drunkenly continue to compete over who is the manliest, now simply using their wives as despised props.

This is the first time I've realised just how darkly satirical all the Bianca business in The Taming of the Shrew is (or can be). But what to make of Petruchio's ultimately successful taming of Katherina? The performances of Carlson and Deborah Hay are both excellent – though Hay's is truly beyond compare. Her Katherina gives as good as she gets in the first slapstick scenes, at one point getting Petruchio into a scissor leglock.

But as he breaks her down, her work becomes gut-wrenching. When forced to call the sun the moon by her husband, she writhes as each word comes out. This is what it is to watch a spirit crushed.

So why do Petruchio and Katherina seem happy at the end? From my seat, I thought Carlson and Hay were perhaps showing parts of themselves after intermission: real-life lovers forced to enact this brutal, twisted parody of romance – by Shakespeare, by the director, by the artistic director, by the audience – and then relieved at last to be released from the play and allowed to let love back in. It's certainly open to interpretation, but, in any case, I was revolted by the end of the play in Abraham's production – and I think that's ideal.

But reactions will vary in a production that allows the play's misogynist men to sit in their own stink. I'm a man and most of us who will publish reviews in newspapers are men, too. My partner loved this Shrew – kidnapped by me for two weeks in Stratford, she had watched women be sexily asphyxiated (in The Physicists) and submit meekly to spousal abuse (Carousel) and she was relieved to see Hay's Katherina actually get a few punches in and for the women-hatred in the play to register with its full weight. Another female friend, however, texted me immediately after the opening to implore me to comment on how deeply problematic the play is.

Here's a fact I feel is worth noting: Abraham's The Taming of the Shrew is the 10th production in the Stratford Festival's history. The play has only been directed by a woman once in Stratford history – by Pamela Hawthorn in 1979. Hawthorn's production of the play is the only one of the 10 to be staged on Stratford's "third stage," the Tom Patterson Theatre, rather than on the main Festival Theatre.

That's it from me. She that knows better how to tame a shrew, now let her speak.

Editor's Note: The original print version and an earlier digital version of this article gave an incorrect figure for the number of times the play has been produced at Stratford. This online version has the correct number -- 10.

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