The Taming of the Shrew, dir. Andy Jones, July 29, 2017 at Perchance Theatre at Cupids (NL)
Reviewed by Tracy O’Brien
For its eighth season, Perchance Theatre (formerly known as New World Theatre Project) has selected The Taming of the Shrew as its comedic Shakespearean offering. Director, writer, and actor, Andy Jones confronts the difficulties of this play with a wink to the audience and a masterful gaze to his troupe and script. By drawing attention to the play’s blatant misogyny and highlighting its absurdity, Jones redeems The Taming of the Shrew as a farcical response to modern-day patriarchal attitudes that, though anachronistic, have persisted over centuries. Sometimes we just need to laugh at such archaic views, to take a moment to acknowledge their inanity, even though we continue to encounter them. Jones’ Shrew provides ample opportunity to laugh.
Perchance, its theatre nestled among the trees at the end of a grassy field, is at its best at night. Evening performances begin just before dusk and are accompanied by birdsong, coral sunsets, and the occasional squirrel. The cost of this pastoral atmosphere, however, is the inevitable drop in temperature, which requires a blanket and/or sweater (no matter how hot it is at the beginning of the show), and the arrival of mosquitoes. Bring a swatter and DEET.
The audience is drawn into the Renaissance world upon crossing the threshold of the theatre where an early-modern costumed gardener (Alexander Wilson) silently rakes the ground as guests take their seats on unvarnished plank benches. After the routine pre-show announcements, the crowd is startled to attention. Chaotic shouts of “The Taming of the Shrew!” reverberate as cast members announce the title out of sync, running onto the stage from its front, rear, and side entrances. The players are attired in costumes that are, if not purely Elizabethan, ornate enough to contribute to the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The richly textured velours, puffy sleeves, feathered hats, capes, caps, doublets, breeches, and ruffs hint to the audience that clothing is an important social signifier to these folks. The sumptuous colours and fabrics contribute later in the play to the high-spirited identity-switching scene between Lucentio (Evan Mercer) and Tranio (Andrew Tremblett) in Act I, and again in Act IV when Petruchio (John Sheehan) attempts to manipulate Kate (Alexis Koetting) into submission by withholding clothing that is supposedly unfit for her.
Kate and Bianca (Erin Mackey) have a sibling rivalry that manifests violently. Koetting has captured Kate’s spirit and wastes no time laying claim to her space in the theatre as she thrashes onto the stage, railing against her sister’s insincere, but effective, obeisance towards the men in their world, and dragging Bianca by her hair as Mackey’s exaggerated wails and whines grate the ears. Mackey plays a saccharine and submissive Bianca, topping her performance with a captivating rendition of Greensleeves that leaves Lucentio spellbound and dragging himself in vain across the stage towards her. Her syrupy disposition gives playgoers a hint as to the source of at least some of her elder sister Kate’s frustration. George Robertson is ideally cast as the bewildered father who is encumbered with a daughter he thought he would never be rid of and another daughter who seems the perfection of female submission and obedience. Bianca’s subplot provides breathing room and innocent laughter between episodes of Petruchio’s “taming” and Kate’s rage and gradual concession, but the real show here is how Kate and Petruchio will resolve their feuding.
John Sheehan has a talent for quickly establishing rapport with his audience, and his humble self-effacing disposition makes his Petruchio a more sympathetic character than he otherwise would be. Sheehan’s quick wit and skills for improvisation add to Petruchio’s hilarity. This Petruchio comes across as doing himself, Kate, and Baptista a favour by helping her recognize how caustic she is towards those around her, and how much easier life could be if she would just behave in a civilized manner. The chemistry between Sheehan and Koetting makes for a satisfied audience, evidenced by gasps and smatterings of “ooooh” around the theatre when the two kiss.
Sheehan’s Petruchio and Greg House’s Grumio are complementary. Theirs would be a true bromance if not for class division, as Grumio, though kept in check by Petruchio’s authority, gets away with a few too many jibes at his master’s expense. It seems Petruchio cannot resist their wink-wink-nudge-nudge relationship when it suits him. Their communications, miscommunications, and slapstick clumsiness keep the audience in stitches, especially throughout the first half of the show. House’s buffoonery offers an entertaining counterpoint to Sheehan’s wit and derision, most evident during the scenes at Petruchio’s home when Grumio is joined by the rest of the house staff who are even more senseless than he is.
There are no insignificant players in this production. Steve O’Connell is on stage relatively briefly, but as usual, his presence is all-encompassing. His authority as the true Vincentio is unquestionable. His utter bafflement upon encountering Petruchio and Kate on the road as the former gaslights the latter makes the revelation that he is the true Vincentio, soon to disrupt his son’s shenanigans in Padua all the more hilarious. Tremblett is effervescent, whether as Tranio or disguised as Lucentio. He bridges the performance and the audience subtly, making you question whether you are watching spectacle or are somehow a part of it. Koetting and Sheehan have the same sort of audience engagement, and these performances somewhat outshine the interaction between Mackey’s Bianca and Mercer’s Lucentio/Cambio. Their “love” seems superficial, if not artificial. Whether this is a result of the imbalance between the performers’ professional experience is unclear. The portrayal may be intentional, designed to inflate the ambiguity that exists throughout the play and to highlight, again, absurdity; this time in the validity of love at first sight, commodification of females, and marriage as a commercial exchange.
Jones lightens the play by following tense or potentially offensive scenes with surprising moments of comedy, and it works very well. For example, the tone shifts during Petruchio’s derogatory monologue in 2.1, in which he outlines how he will speak to Kate when they first meet, by a subtle insertion of Newfoundland dialect (always a hit with the audience). Sheehan adapts line 176: “If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks” to: “Say she tells me ‘pack off’”. The audience roars.
Not one to be limited to verbal gameplay, Jones also applies physicality to his comic creativity, breaking the tension when a starving and enraged Kate attacks Grumio for being a puerile torment. The two burst from backstage, but subvert audience expectations by enacting a slow-motion chase rather than engaging in a raucous brawl. Complete with slow-motion vocals, the scene leaves viewers in stitches.
Jones makes excellent use of sound throughout the play with the cast providing an a cappella soundtrack, often at moments of heightened hostility. For example, immediately following Petruchio throwing Kate over his shoulder after the nuptials and carrying her off, literally kicking and screaming (i.e., the kidnapping), the cast, sans the newlyweds, collectively and melodramatically sings, “Duhn duhn duhn dhuuuuunnnnn”.
The wedding, despite Kate’s duress and Petruchio’s outrageous wardrobe, becomes jovial, at least for a while, as family and friends remain indifferent to her plight and bind themselves to tradition. Their celebration is a farce, magnified by the wedding portraits, which are created preposterously quickly by a smocked painter using an easel. The wedding party switches from formal to silly to ludicrous in a nod to the inanity of our selfie- and photo-obsessed society. Again and again throughout this production, Jones reminds the audience not to take things too seriously.
This is why Kate’s final speech is problematic compared to the rest of the performance. Unlike Kate’s remarks and actions throughout the play, here Koetting delivers a firm and sincere admonition of the other wives’ behaviour and implores them to “serve, love, and obey” their husbands as their lords. There is no obvious irony in Koetting’s delivery of this speech, which leaves the audience slightly baffled as to how or why Kate has had such a sudden and complete change of heart.
This is not the woman that Petruchio met and married, and Koetting’s mesmerizing exhortation is only disambiguated if the audience recalls Jones’ efforts to underscore the farcical throughout the play. The Kate throughout the play is to be cheered for, but by the end it seems Petruchio has been too successful and we are left with no remnant of Kate at all. Delivering the longest speech in the play and with all eyes in the theatre riveted to her, she leaves it to the audience members to sort for themselves whether she has indeed been tamed or has simply mastered the rules of her husband’s game, and this patriarchal society, to her own benefit.
The Taming of the Shrew continues until August 27. For more information, see https://www.perchancetheatre.com/
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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