The Taming of the Shrew

Footsteps Theatre Company

The Duchess of Malfi

Green Highway Theater

at Footsteps Theatre Company

By Gabrielle S. Kaplan

I remember seeing a production of The Taming of the Shrew when I was 16, at a time when I was both discovering my love for Shakespeare and realizing that I identified much more with Hamlet than Ophelia. Shakespeare’s female characters, whether comic or tragic, were usually concerned with love and heartache and making their fathers understand the men they wanted to marry, while their male counterparts got to do things: fight wars, avenge their fathers. Then I saw The Taming of the Shrew, and within moments of Kate’s entrance I was spellbound–at last, a female character who showed strength and brains and stubbornness, who didn’t have the sweet manners of a marriageable girl (though her younger sister Bianca did). Kate acted, she wasn’t acted upon. I sat in awe of her until the very last scene, when, having married her wild suitor Petruchio and been successfully deshrewed, Kate explains to her family and friends the role of a dutiful wife. The director had Kate absolutely groveling. Terribly confused, I wanted to vomit.

In her program notes to this Footsteps Theatre production director Jean Adamak acknowledges the play’s difficulty: “Choosing…The Taming of the Shrew may seem odd for a women’s theatre company.” Indeed, today Shakespeare’s comedy about the courting and marriage of two very different sisters doesn’t seem terribly funny. But Adamak and the Footsteps cast and crew have restored my love for Kate in this, their fifth all-female Shakespeare production, opening my eyes to a much deeper reading of a finely crafted comedy. Here the match between Kate, an outcast in her hometown of Padua because of her sharp tongue, and Petruchio, an unrestrained and equally lonely person, is comprehensible, and the turnaround at the end is more about their bonding and growth as a couple than about Kate’s subjugation.

Adamak puts Kate in a context that explains her ill will. Sandy Borglum gives the character the necessary strength and emphasizes her wit and humor, which makes her much more sympathetic than stereotypically shrewish. And Kate’s dear, bumbling father Baptista (hit on the mark by Amanda Clower) and the fools courting her sister (Mara Roche as Hortensio and Sandra Storrer as Gremio) are so clueless and patronizing that not only is Kate’s ill temper understandable, it’s the only reaction imaginable when she’s the only one in the house who’s got any sense.

The deft, highly physical Dawn Alden plays Petruchio with such passion and virility that no one should ever doubt casting a woman in one of Shakespeare’s male roles again. Alden uncovers Petruchio’s wild spirit and brings it to life in such a way that gender isn’t an issue. Sparks fly between Petruchio and Kate as they do between any two people meant to be lovers; it seems right they should be together. The chemistry between Alden and Borglum permeates the play, from the intrigue of their initial meeting to the silences accompanying their return to Padua for Bianca’s wedding, and their deep understanding of each other by the end is completely believable.

Adamak builds the energy of the show scene by scene. The machinations surrounding Bianca’s marriage are played with heart by Lisa Rothschiller and her suitors, including the switch of identities between master Lucentio (Jaqueline Fleming) and servant Tranio (the hilarious Michele DiMaso): Adamak has hit the comedy’s essential timing right on. And it’s amazing how neatly she fills Footsteps’ intimate space, smartly designed by Todd Reemtsma, even when almost the entire cast (including canine special guests) are onstage. She’s also wisely cast actors who can handle Shakespeare’s dialogue. Crucial to communicating the heart of this 16th-century play and rendering it timely is the actors’ understanding of the language. From minor servant to lead character, the cast speak the Elizabethan text from a place clearly connected to their thoughts of today.

Footsteps’ Taming of the Shrew pays true homage to the play’s ironies, to the fact that a woman mocked for her outspokenness ends up using her wit to shine before the community. This production is less about dominance and submission in male and female roles than it is about finding an equal partner. Here Kate and Petruchio make an ultimately loving match on their own terms, not on society’s–an act that couldn’t be more contemporary, as our government has so recently passed laws defining marriage narrowly.

Green Highway Theater also takes on the challenge of an Elizabethan play with its staging of John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, updating the action to the Jazz Age. While Webster’s plays may not be read or produced as often as the Bard’s, The Duchess of Malfi approaches many of the issues also common in Shakespeare’s tragedies: hypocrisy, the lust for power, man’s downfall through his own greed and evil. Moreover The Duchess of Malfi, like The Taming of the Shrew, looks at a woman’s choices in marriage. Here the young widowed duchess is forbidden to remarry by her creepy brothers, the twisted Ferdinand and the lecherous Cardinal. But the duchess defies them, secretly marrying the man she truly loves, Antonio, even though he’s not of her class.

Because this is a tragedy, the Duchess’s choices end in a slew of senseless deaths, including her own. Though her honest love for Antonio and her challenge to her brothers earn her a place in theater history as a complex and memorable heroine, she is ultimately a victim. Examining the duchess’s character from a late-20th-century perspective, it’s difficult to find her power or to comment on the male domination that doomed her. But Green Highway director Janel Winter doesn’t even come close.

Green Highway’s ambitious setting of The Duchess of Malfi in the Roaring Twenties represents an attempt to link the play with the prosperity, loosening of morals, and changing roles for women of the Jazz Age. But beyond Rachael Howard’s art deco set, Joanna Lowenstein’s 20s-style costumes, and the music used between scenes, no effort has been made to define the characters by the times. This vagueness makes me question Winter’s intentions; if she wants to prove the timelessness of The Duchess of Malfi, she needs a much deeper exploration of the play itself. It seems she was grasping for a concept rather than embracing the script. And despite some naturally feeling scenes, the principal actors too often fall into a breathy delivery or yelling. Despite its ambition, this production proves to be yet another attempt by a young company at a play too challenging for its resources.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Taming of the Shrew.