The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Kevin Gates. At the City Theater, Austin, TX, June 8, 2017.
Review by Michael Saenger
What in the world does one do with The Taming of the Shrew? When I was growing up, it was a staple of community theater, a hilarious and (chuckle) romantic tale of an alpha male who shows a tough girl who’s the boss. I can’t even type that without feeling a little gross. Especially at the present time, it seems really urgent to be honest about hypermasculinity as a problem, and the play takes the issue very lightly. Actually, it celebrates the abuser.
Let’s lay out the problems with the play. It focuses on a rather dizzying set of suitors who do their best to get the attention of two eligible maidens. Well, mostly just one. Bianca, the sweet and submissive sister, played with sweet and clear confidence by Angelica Elliot. Various suitors are after her. The problem is that she cannot marry until her sister Katarina, the eponymous shrew, is first married, and that is not so easy. You see, she’s headstrong and challenges authority. Fortunately (for the patriarchal order), Katarina comes with a dowry, and that attracts the attention of the strutting and abusive Petruchio, who rudely “woos” her. The play concludes with a party wherein three men drunkenly wager on whose wife is most obedient. Petruchio wins, and there you get the lesson of the play. In case you didn’t quite get it, Katarina then proceeds to explain very clearly that she has learned a woman must submit to her husband completely, and that all other women, whether onstage or off, should do the same.
Any production of the play must confront the terrible message that’s deeply rooted in the script. This performance uses nontraditional casting as its primary way of coping with it. Both Katarina and Petruchio are played by women: the former by Brittany Flurry, and the latter by Shelby Miller. What’s the effect? Well, Miller makes a compelling figure, angling around the stage and shifting costumes for almost every scene, and while she is never truly menacing, she captures Petruchio’s maniacal playfulness. Flurry, on the other hand, begins the show overplaying anger a bit, but emerges toward the end as the most human figure in a cartoonish play, as if Petruchio’s cruelty had confused her and made her more authentic.
For her part, Miller was queer in the best sense of the term, activating and destabilizing the genders and the society around her. At times, the play read like a parody of marriage rather than a celebration of its brutal history. There didn’t seem to be a more definite message than that, but that works–the contrast of the docile (and later devious) Bianca and the bitter (and later submissive) Katarina plays to comic energies that are at least somewhat redeemed by tilting the play askew from its original foundation.
Surrounding these two performers, things get pretty uneven. Many actors did not seem to understand their own sentences, and some were almost impossible to understand, which made for long stretches between the laughs. There were columns in the set that seemed to hint at the past, but the cast wore ordinary contemporary clothing.
Perhaps in a nod to the clever and innovative movie Ten Things I Hate About You, the play closed with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” That was the song that the Katarina character, played by Julia Stiles in that 1999 movie, blasts from her car at an intersection. But of course, Jett does care about her bad reputation. She loves it. So does Miller as Petruchio. And when the alpha male is a female, this play of gender friction is more presentable. If the play is to be redeemed, a reasonable way to do so is to use it as a way to question why we ever thought it was a light comedy in the first place.