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For decades now, its deeply problematic gender politics have made The Taming of the Shrew one of Shakespeare’s least viable plays for contemporary audiences. The Public Theater takes a bold stab at circumventing that issue by placing the arch comedy of phallocentric supremacy in the knowing hands of director Phyllida Lloyd, whose all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV have been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. But what proved insightful for a tragedy and a history play generates only intermittent sparks in this knockabout feminist burlesque, even if the well-matched leads keep you watching.
Both Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo have worked with Lloyd before to great acclaim — McTeer in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, which played Broadway in 2009; and Jumbo (late of The Good Wife) in Julius Caesar, as well as in her Josephine Baker solo show, Josephine and I, seen last year at the Public’s cabaret space, Joe’s Pub.
Their casting as the tempestuously betrothed Petruchio and Katherina is this production’s chief reward, with McTeer playing the groom as a crude biker dude, all lecherous limbs and snaky hips, and Jumbo balancing petulant tantrums with angry intelligence as his reluctant bride. Her superb delivery of Kate’s final monologue, like a sweet Stepford Wife who suddenly snaps out of her broken daze and throws off the trappings of her subjugation, puts such a tart conclusion on the evening that it almost retroactively makes everything else work. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s followed by the joyous rebellion of a curtain-call dance to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.”)
Some audiences no doubt will get a kick out of the staging, given the innately subversive fun of watching women make a mockery of a society of men who measure their manhood strictly in terms of their dominance. There’s a clumsy interlude during which comic Judy Gold as Gremio breaks the fourth wall to rail against the outrage of Shakespeare being directed by a woman in a country preparing to vote for a female president. Lloyd’s annotations tend to be more jokey than illuminating. The cleverest of them is framing the action as a Miss Lombardy beauty pageant, emceed by an unseen Donald Trump impersonator. That most sexually objectifying of all rituals represents another sardonic slap to the play’s celebration of male tyranny.
But it’s hard to make sense of the design choices, which deposit the story in a shabby carnival ground, in a mid-20th century hinterland that blurs Italy with America. Lloyd plays free and easy with her pop-cultural embellishments, borrowing from Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart and Elvis Presley, dropping in disco, rap, rock and tacky lounge-act jazz. However, unlike the director’s choice of a women’s prison as the stage for her Julius Caesar and Henry IV, the concept here never gels into anything more than a random al fresco funhouse for a lot of strained, raucous farce. Plenty of Shakespeare productions have opted successfully for period mishmash over Elizabethan fidelity. But without a solid time-and-place grounding, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that this unrelentingly blunt comedy just isn’t very funny.
While the original five-act text has been filleted down to just under two intermissionless hours, the key plot points remain intact. Despite a long line of suitors vying for the hand of his comely youngest daughter Bianca (Gayle Rankin), Baptista (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a nobleman of Padua, insists that Bianca’s hellcat older sister Kate must be married off first. Her vile temper scares off all potential husbands until swaggering Petruchio arrives from Verona, his main requirement for marriage being a hefty dowry: “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; If wealthily, then happily in Padua.”
Boasting with obscene confidence that no woman is beyond his control, he obtains Baptista’s consent and marries Kate, whisking her off in a trailer with “PISA-ASS” license plates to “curb her mad and headstrong humor.” This he achieves with an unflagging campaign of starvation, sleep deprivation and humiliation, eventually reintroducing her into society as the perfect model of spousal obedience and an example to the other men’s independent-minded brides.
There are choice sight gags, such as a glowering Kate pedaling furiously on a pink dragster bike that serves as a chariot for Bianca, got up as Cowgirl Barbie. Jumbo is quite divine, her fiery eyes conveying the rage of a thousand indignities. And McTeer delivers a rascally drag-king turn, her self-satisfied physicality and bumptious growl skewering every sleazy supposed ladykiller who ever strutted into a party with conquest on his mind.
Lloyd also has assembled a deluxe supporting cast. Rankin makes a spirited Bianca, and there’s wry work from Donna Lynne Champlin (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and especially Adrienne C. Moore (Orange Is the New Black) as an incognito servant savoring the deceit.
The actors’ skills, however, are employed mostly in the service of broad shtick, since the directorial approach doesn’t allow much leeway for character-driven humor. The women onstage are all clearly having a riot of a time, deriding the clueless foolishness of men conditioned to believe in their misogynistic superiority. But like Lloyd’s grating film version of her mammoth stage hit Mamma Mia!, the performers appear to be having way more fun than the audience. Even with the production’s massive parenthetical wink, all this is rarely as diverting as the Central Park raccoons that kept scampering onto the stage periphery during the early action.
Venue: Delacorte Theatre, New York
Cast: Janet McTeer, Cush Jumbo, Rosa Gilmore, Adrienne C. Moore, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Gayle Rankin, Judy Gold, Donna Lynne Champlin, Teresa Avia Lim, Stacey Sargeant, Anne L. Nathan, Candy Buckley, Leenya Rideout, Pearl Rhein, Jackie Sanders, Natalie Woolams-Torres
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel
Music: Sam Davis
Sound designer: Mark Menard
Fight director: Lisa Kopitsky
Movement director: Ann Yee
Presented by The Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park
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