REVIEW: Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare)

Framed ‘Shrew’ no improvement

 

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents
 
The Taming of the Shrew
 
By William Shakespeare with new induction scenes by Neil LaBute
Directed by Josie Rourke
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. (map)
Through June 6  |  tickets: $44-$75 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Fog spews out over the stage almost ceaselessly throughout Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new version of The Taming of the Shrew. The play is set in sunny Italy, so why all this London-style mist? It’s emblematic of the hazy thinking that clearly CST_SHREW_IMAGE_1prevailed throughout the creation of this deeply flawed production.

In enlisting Neil LaBute to write a new frame for this broadly humorous but troublesomely sexist play, Director Josie Rourke said her goal was to "create something that would release an interesting and sophisticated debate about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Shrew [and] make the play more relevant to us now…. What I’m hoping the frame will do is allow us to do the play within its own period but at the same time reminding us of where we are now."

So to reconfigure a play offensive to feminist sensibilities, Rourke hires a man. And his idea of bringing a relevant, contemporary viewpoint to this story about a strong, if bitchy, woman browbeaten into subservient docility by her husband is to introduce a catfight between shrilly vituperative lesbians.

In the frame, which echoes the play-within-a-play format of Shakespeare’s original, we get an unhappy sexual triangle of the Director (a cool performance by Mary Beth Fisher); her long-term partner, the actress playing Katherina (Bianca Amato, turbulent and a little muddy in both roles); and the latter’s latest fling, the ingenue playing sister Bianca (Katherine Cunningham, whose sly performance barely changes from part to part). The Director confronts her partner with infidelity; the actress accuses the Director of trying to control her by casting her in this submissive role.

Just about everything about this production is annoying, from the interminable noisy vacuuming that sets the stage for the frame to the ridiculous conclusion. The lumbering frame promotes the age-old, wrongheaded notions that women have no professionalism or moral fiber, that they’re unreliable and prone to hysterics, and that they’ll do anything for love. Moreover, the new scenes intrude unpleasantly and disruptively into the main show, not least by making it difficult to separate the inner play’s Katherina from the outer play’s actress character.

Having heard the actress in a man-hating tirade against the actor playing her husband and his weakly whimpering response — for all that Ian Bedford does delicious job as Petruchio — it becomes difficult to imagine any sexual tension between the couple. And hot sex is one of the few plausible reasons for Kate’s giving way to her spouse’s abuse.

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The huge, waggish codpieces worn by the actors are absurd and amusing in themselves, but added to the frame’s stereotyped intimations that many of these men are gay, they start to present a somewhat ugly picture.

No show at Chicago Shakespeare is ever wholly without merit, however. Rourke has a nice hand with staging. Even my seat far around to stage right had good views of the action throughout, although in a few spots it seemed unnatural, with characters facing away from the people they were speaking to.

It’s always a pleasure to see Mike Nussbaum, and he’s in fine, funny form as Bianca’s rich and wizened old suitor. Other highlights include Sean Fortunato’s wry Hortensio, another suitor; Larry Yando’s aggravated Baptista, the sisters’ father; and Stephen Ouimette and Alex Goodrich as comic servants.

And then there’s the rich language of The Bard — no matter how wrongheaded his plots, his words resonate.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Extra Credit

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