Oak Park Festival Theatre

I’ve never much liked The Taming of the Shrew. In fact, I’ve come close to loathing it at times, on political grounds. It struck me the way it strikes a lot of people–as a veritable festival of antifeminism. A nasty little gob of misogyny that, by virtue of its classical status, turns up sooner or later under every theatergoer’s shoe. Centered around a matrimonial mercenary named Petruchio, and his campaign to domesticate the notoriously intractable Kate, Shrew interested me only insofar as it offered a creepy sort of prescience: Petruchio’s style of wooing anticipates brainwashing techniques attributed to the communists during the Korean War.

And the fact that Shakespeare wrote it just made my distaste more intense. For all its undeniable wit and cunning, Shrew seemed unworthy of my pal Will, whose women–from Lady Macbeth to Doll Tearsheet–are among the fiercest and most fascinating in Western theater.

But now I’ve seen the Oak Park Festival Theatre production of Shrew, and things don’t feel as cut-and-dried as they once did.

It’s not as if I’d suddenly changed my opinions about a woman’s place–or as if the story itself were somehow different. A war veteran with an undiminished zest for battle, Petruchio still aims to “wive it wealthily in Padua,” where any number of interested parties are ready to bankroll his plan to “board” the forbidding Kate. He still maneuvers Kate into a wedding, and applies the most outrageous–and sophisticated–strategies to break her resistance. He still takes her away from home, denies her food and sleep, insists that she agree with him against the evidence of her own eyes, and in general attempts to replace her will with his own.

And what’s more, he still succeeds. Kate’s his Manchurian candidate. His Jonestown disciple. His Patty Hearst. He subverts her in his best Symbionese Liberation Army style–kidnapping and isolating her; plying her with equal parts brutality and kindness, despair and hope; filling her up with propaganda until she not only give in but loves it. Loves him.

Nevertheless, I saw something new in the play this time around. Something I would’ve rejected in the past as pure, regressive, obfuscating, sexist sentimentality. I saw a liberating surrender of ego. I saw a dignified acceptance of common purpose. I saw Kate’s fifth-act line about placing her hand below her husband’s foot, not as an invitation to crushed fingers, but as a declaration of trust. A willingness to believe that the heart connected to that foot, being loving, would never hurt her. I saw, in short, the privilege and freedom of submission.

And strangest of all, I saw these things without ever once losing sight of Petruchio’s meaner, darker manipulations. This Shrew didn’t suddenly transform itself into sweetness and light. No–it opened out, instead, into a wonderfully ambiguous experience. Vast extremes of cynicism and faith in one funny, romantic story. The secret of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, as far as I’m concerned, is their ambiguity–their ability to sustain endless interpretation. Now, completely without warning, I’ve found The Taming of the Shrew sharing that secret.

I’m not absolutely sure why. Maybe it’s because this is the first Shrew I’ve seen since I got married three and a half years ago. Marriage teaches you a lot about manipulation and surrender; perhaps I brought some of what I learned to Oak Park. Or maybe it’s because David Darlow’s easy, various Petruchio allows for so many possibilities. Darlow’s Petruchio is a hard case and a fool, a Neanderthal and a Zen master. A nemesis and a guide. It’s a marvelous, true, practically perfect performance–and Kristine Thatcher’s vulnerable Kate parries it beautifully.

Now if Darlow could only direct as well as he acts. Practically everything around Kate and Petruchio is a total loss–infected with a deadly, irrelevant wackiness. That just won’t quit. It’s time to watch the 747s circling overhead at Oak Park’s outdoor theater, when the stars aren’t onstage. But then again, when they are, it’s all so very . . . so incredibly . . . so intensely . . . ambiguous.