More than any other of his works, The Taming of the Shrew is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius and unbelievable staying power. It is easy to understand why plays like Hamlet, with its intrigue, action and quotability, and Romeo and Juliet, with its tragic love story and familial feuding, still draw droves to the theater. Though written so long ago, these stories still resonate with modern audiences on a very basic level.
The Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, concerns itself almost entirely with the forced marriage and forceful subjugation of the will of a wife by her husband.
You can’t find a rerun of All in the Family, a similarly politically incorrect show from a mere 35 years ago, on any of the 700 channels on your television, yet theater companies perform The Taming of the Shrew, a 400-year-old play, all over the world to this day, and people continue to enjoy it.
Director Stephanie Shine chose not to update the setting, physically or temporally, of The Taming of the Shrew. Aside from the use of some modern music, including an early and perfectly calculated appearance of Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano,” this Shrew appears much as it might have back in old Will’s day. Anne Murphy’s costumes, particularly Petruchio’s crazed wedding garb, possess a wonderful Old World charm. They, even more than the set design, which is somewhat hamstrung by the need to share much of King Lear’s Western slat board construction, give the play its identity.
Given The Taming of the Shrew’s anachronistic and possibly distasteful subject matter and the potential confusion caused by multiple characters pretending to be other characters, it would be easy for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of it to come off the rails. Thankfully, this Shrew stays fixed firmly on course and delivers a highly entertaining night — or day — out. Its success is due in large part to a few key, outstanding performances.
As written, our shrew, Kate (Karyn Casl), is for most of the play a terrifying harpy, her every word and action full of venom and spite. In the past, I have seen actresses play Kate in a very one-note fashion, which, as one might expect, drains her of much of her interest and prevents the audience from accepting her transformation into an obedient wife. Casl avoids this pitfall admirably. Her Kate appears at first to be a sort of proto-feminist rather than a raving bitch, and this allows the audience to empathize with her as she is almost literally beaten into submission.
Kate’s husband, Petruchio (Augustus Truhn), is very much the lynchpin of The Taming of the Shrew. Given his initial motivation for wooing Kate (more financial than romantic) and his later treatment of her — starving her, using forced sleep deprivation on her, etc. — it takes a nimble performer to keep the audience on his side. Truhn seems almost effortless in his portrayal of Petruchio, and his performance elevates The Taming of the Shrew from good to great. He exhibits tremendous range as he tackles Petruchio as a self-assured gentleman, a sly comedian and a stern-but-loving husband.
The real surprise of The Taming of the Shrew is Geoffrey Kent’s turn as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio. I’ve seen Kent in a handful of productions, and he always delivers, but he takes it up a notch with his hilarious Grumio. He steals many scenes and nearly the entire show. He even banters effectively with the audience while remaining in character. He has really outdone himself this time around.
Finally, there is a bit of stunt casting in The Taming of the Shrew that deserves mention. The producing artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Philip Sneed, plays the part of Gremio, one of the suitors of Kate’s younger sister, Bianca (Alexandra Lewis). After a lightning-fast costume change between his pre-show introductions and his early-scene entrance, Sneed gives us a Gremio full of wit. He is a pleasure to watch.
On the Bill
The Taming of the Shrew plays through Aug. 6
at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the University of Colorado
campus. Tickets are $10 to $50. For tickets or information, call
303-492-0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.