Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theater

In the festive opening scene of Shakespeare Repertory’s production of The Taming of the Shrew a peasant couple dressed in rags yells and fights its way onstage, followed by a band of merrymakers adorned in a rainbow of shredded fabrics and bursting with song. So director Barbara Gaines succinctly establishes the romantic comedy’s circuslike energy. The cantankerous couple’s cat fight foreshadows the ensuing tangle between the sharp-tongued Petruchio and the shrewish Katherine, whom he hopes to tame. The roaring crowd onstage prepares us for the energized shenanigans and mischievous romancing that will serve as a backdrop to Petruchio and Kate’s war of words and wills. Kate’s gently authoritative father Baptista runs an affluent household where servants seem to be propelled across the stage as they hasten to his bidding, while Baptista floats among them undisturbed. Comic interlopers–the lovelorn and money-hungry suitors of Kate’s younger, infinitely more amiable sister–connive to disguise themselves and woo fair Bianca undetected by her father.

This happy confusion of concealed identities and cuckolded suitors surrounds Kate and Petruchio (Kristine Thatcher and Scott Wentworth) but does not drown them out. They command the stage like the main event at a wrestling match. On their first encounter the couple repeatedly land on the floor, not in embraces but in headlocks. Finally, by literally forcing Kate’s hands into her father’s, Petruchio declares himself the winner of the match and of Kate’s hand in marriage.

Thatcher and Wentworth’s thrilling physical comedy complements the real weapons of this romantic war–the characters’ brilliant wit. After all, The Taming of the Shrew is not about a woman being beaten into submission but about a man and a woman who meet their intellectual equals and are transformed by love. In their first verbal duel, the players sling insults with equal agility, Kate characterizing Petruchio as a pest and he calling her a buzzing, stinging wasp. In the final ribald line, Petruchio declares that his tongue is caught in Kate’s “tail.”

To woo Kate uninvited, Petruchio has to be commanding, even recklessly self-confident. Accordingly, the tall, lean Wentworth poses, hands on hips, with bombastic regality. Yet Wentworth’s Petruchio taunts Kate with speeches tempered with gentle pauses and hushed tones. Also, we occasionally catch a glint in Petruchio’s eye that hints at his admiration for the headstrong Kate.

In Kate, Thatcher succeeds in creating both a strong and sad woman. Even as she screams and lashes out with clawlike hands, Kate’s vulnerability shows through: surrounded by people in terror of her, she is desperately lonely. When Kate, dressed in her wedding gown, stands alone in a spotlight, her trembling look reveals how much she needs Petruchio to love her.

Both performances maintain a mean edge almost to the end, even as the lovers’ mutual respect grows. Only in act four, after Petruchio and Kate’s hasty marriage, do the performances mellow and briefly lose their spark. Petruchio attempts to “kill” his spoiled wife with kindness, claiming no food or clothes in his house are good enough for her. Here he should be at his toughest, yet Wentworth seems almost apologetic. Kate seems hungry and tired but not hopelessly worn-out, as she should be on Petruchio’s deprivation diet. The scenes still hold many comic moments, but they’re not as ferociously funny as they could be.

Though the minor characters endure less emotional turmoil, the supporting players create strong, often fascinating presences. No cardboard beauty, Nancy Voigts makes Bianca a smart coquette, capable of winning her father’s devotion then disobeying him behind his back. As Hortensio, the suitor who disguises himself to be near Bianca, Larry Yando looks wonderfully foolish in a squashed false nose. Tim Barker’s wild-eyed messenger Biondello, his hair raised on end as if caught in a permanent wind, froze the action just by running onstage. And as Tranio, the savvy servant who trades places with his slow-witted master, Ross Lehman purposefully exaggerated each gesture and snort, sweetly mocking a foppish aristocracy.

Nan Zabriskie’s costume design and Richard Jarvie’s hair design brilliantly define the parade of characters. The fiery, auburn-haired Kate makes her stormy entrance in a garish orange-and-green-striped gown. She progresses to a soft white brocade wedding dress and then a solid maroon gown as Petruchio’s tamed wife. From the beginning, Petruchio is a foreboding figure in leggings, boots, and a tailored leather coat. Glittered purple and gold gowns mark the dignity of the older men, except for Grumio, Bianca’s oldest suitor, whose pale gray and pink ballooned knickers suggest his impotence.

A production buzzing with so much color, character, and activity hardly needs a set. Except for a small curtain painted with a pastoral scene, an all-purpose bench, and a swing suspended from the ceiling, designer Michael Philippi wisely keeps the stage’s rich wood floor and balcony free of clutter–the better to watch Kate and Petruchio wrestle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.