Orange County Theatre Reviews

(photo by Debora Robinson)

Written by Daniella Litvak 

Time to brush up on your Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most popular —actually his second most popular according to a survey the Royal Shakespeare Company conducted in 2003. The story goes like this. In sixteenth century Italy, Padua to be exact, there lives a rich gentleman named Baptista. He has two daughters. Several suitors clamor for the hand of Bianca, the younger daughter. Unfortunately, Baptista refuses to permit any of the suitors marry Bianca until his elder daughter, Katherine (whose name varies from production to production), is wed first. Katherine is deemed a shrew —aka an abusive woman who does not know her place. Bianca’s suitors convince Petruchio —a gentleman of Verona —to woo Katherine. Attracted to her dowry and the idea of breaking her, Petruchio goes after Katherine’s hand while the rest of them continue to scheme for Bianca’s. 

South Coast Repertory presents the world premiere of “Shrew!” by Amy Freed, directed by Art Manke. Cast: Elijah Alexander (Petruchio), Stephen Caffrey (Merchant/Priest), Peter Frechette (Hortensio), Jeremy Peter Johnson (Train), Sierra Jolene (Bianca Minola), Martin Kildare (Baptista Minola), Colette Kilroy (Mistress Slapbottom/Widow), Mike McShane (Gremio), Matt Orduña (Vincent/Wedding Singer), Susannah Rogers (The Writer/Katherine Minola), Bhama Roget (Biondella), Brett Ryback (Lucentio), Danny Scheie (Grumio). Segerstrom Stage, March 24 – April 21, 2018

Even in Shakespeare’s lifetime people found the idea of taming Katherine disgusting, and productions of it struggle with how to present the subject matter —sincerely as an admission of the prevailing attitudes of its day or ironically in hopes audiences will realize the show is not condoning the moral of submit to the man your father sold you to. What else can be done?

How about reimagining The Taming of the Shrew as if a sixteenth century woman wrote it? Shrew! takes up this idea but does not run with it. Summarizing Shrew! would be redundant. Here, are some of the plotting changes Shrew! makes: the framing device is about the aforementioned sixteenth century woman (Susannah Rogers) trying to fix The Taming of the Shrew, rather than the source material’s framing device of convincing a peddler he’s a lord; Petruchio (Elijah Alexander) is genuinely attracted to Katherine’s (also Susannah Rogers) spirit and wit; his attempts to “tame” Katherine are not to be taken seriously, and the infamous final speech is taken to task. Otherwise, from a story perspective, Shrew! is still The Taming of the Shrew.

The result is Shrew! plays it too safe.  For much of the play Katherine is still the butt of the joke. The changes —while appreciated —are ultimately cosmetic. So much could have been done with this premise, but the play chooses too often to conform to the source material rather than break free and be its own masterpiece.

Now, putting all of that aside, what is presented on the stage is actually very watchable. The performances and set design are excellent.  Playwright Amy Freed has a knack for writing Shakespearean verse. (According to the production notes, only a few dozen lines remain in tact from the original text of The Taming of the Shrew). Her use of anachronisms and double entendres is very much in keeping with Shakespeare’s style.   Combining all the positive makes the two and a half hour (which includes a fifteen minute intermission) runtime flow very quickly.                      

My feelings about Shrew! are now as complicated —though for admittedly different reasons —as my feelings towards The Taming of the Shrew. While I had an enjoyable theater experience, it is still sad that with Shrew! Freed chooses to remain in Shakespeare’s shadow instead of seeing the bard as a giant upon whose shoulders she could have stood upon so that she could have seen further.           

March 24, 2018 – April 21, 2018


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