I want to apologize at the outset. Here Chicago Shakespeare Theater just built an astonishing new performance space, the Yard, where nine huge “audience towers” can be slid around on cushions of air, allowing for all kinds of configurations. And here they inaugurated it with a four-night stand by the supremely gifted Swiss physical artist James Thiérrée, providing not only a gorgeous show but an encouraging sign that the Yard will be thoughtfully programmed. And now, ingrate that I am, I’m going to tell you what a mess CST’s new main-stage version of The Taming of the Shrew is.
A festive mess, to be sure. A well-meant and fitfully amusing mess, nicely stocked with talent. But an overlong and ill-conceived one too.
As you probably know, The Taming of the Shrew has become for some feminists what The Merchant of Venice is for some Jews: a subject of contention and source of an odd sort of Oedipal shame, as if Shakespeare’s comic exploitation of gender inequality has disqualified him as Western culture’s equivalent of the world’s greatest dad.
The proofs that Shrew is shot through with retrograde assumptions are pretty compelling—starting with the title, which refers to Katherine, the eldest daughter of a wealthy man of Venetian Padua named Baptista Minola. Accurately reputed to be “intolerable curst and shrewd and froward,” not to mention “renowned . . . for her scolding tongue,” Katherine is generally thought to be as unmarriageable as she is unmanageable. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that she has a beautiful and obedient little sister, Bianca, whose future turns on Katherine’s prospects for betrothal. Old man Minola has cannily announced that no one may have Bianca’s coveted hand until somebody takes the shrew off his.
Enter Petruchio, a connubial mercenary who’s famously “come to wive it wealthily in Padua.” Backed by Bianca’s suitors, he marries Katherine and embarks on a “taming” campaign having a lot in common with classic brainwashing techniques. By the time Katherine’s reeducation is over, she’s so thoroughly housebroken that she can lecture other women (including Bianca) on wifely duty, telling them to “place your hands below your husband’s foot.”
That’s the gist, anyway. Personally, I think that Shrew is about a couple of outlaw types finding each other and falling in love. I think that what Petruchio teaches Katherine isn’t submission but how to make her anger serve rather than defeat her, and that the hands-below-your-husband’s-foot speech is an ironic (and profitable, inasmuch as a 100-crown bet hinges on it) demonstration of her new-found ability to turn conventions against the conventional.
But never mind that. A strong argument portrays Shrew as a socially backward relic in need of constructive subversion, and Barbara Gaines has picked up on the argument for this CST rendition. Her overall notion—to stage the comedy with an all-female cast—isn’t new: it was done at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013, Phyllida Lloyd tried it at New York’s Delacorte Theatre in 2016, and the Queen’s Company put up a gender-blind mounting with Bianca played by a blow-up sex doll. Gaines’s innovation lies in the framing device. Featuring new, interpolated scenes written by Second City vet Ron West, the show is set in Chicago on August 18, 1920, when Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. The Columbia Women’s Club is coincidentally meeting that day to rehearse its presentation of guess what, and history gets mixed up with consciousness-raising as the rehearsal unwinds.
The conceit sounds fabulous, but it fails on several counts. First, the idea that we’re at a rehearsal for an amateur troupe presupposes, well, amateurism. You’d expect something akin to the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but what you get is a bunch of accomplished artists working at a high level of expertise in violation of the premise. Crystal Lucas-Perry and Alexandra Henrikson are just too good as Petruchio and Katherine, respectively; so is Hollis Resnik as Bianca’s elderly suitor, Gremio; and so is practically everyone else. Then too, it takes a big suspension of disbelief to think that the ladies of the club would jump so enthusiastically into Shakespeare’s dirtier jokes, knowing they’ll be performing them for an audience.
The biggest problem, though, is this Shrew‘s lack of any real surprises. Given the tone of the interpolated scenes, we sense early on that what we’re seeing is about affirmation rather than exploration, and that sense turns out to be correct. The show develops into a feminist pageant, honoring our foremothers in the good fight for equal rights. We spend three hours arriving at a foregone conclusion. v