Chet Greason, firstname.lastname@example.org
If there’s one thing Chris Abraham knows, it’s how to wring every last laugh out of a Shakespearean comedy.
His production of Taming of the Shrew, much like last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, doesn’t hold back in its joviality. It is joyful, riotous, and filled to the brim with pleasurable moments.
Abraham has proven he has no fear of adapting Shakespeare’s dusty scripts to suit a modern audience, a practice that tends to irk purists. He addresses this with a lengthy, wholly original opening that not only lambasts stuffy theatre bloggers but also last year’s production of Dream, Canadian accents in Shakespearean productions, the Shaw Festival, and even star Ben Carlson himself.
But what about Shrew’s infamous and troublesome sexism? How much does Abraham tamper with the script to assuage the rampant misogyny of this notorious production? More on that later.
First, props (heh. Theatre pun) must be given to the comedic chops of the cast. Tom Rooney and Gordon S. Miller yuck it up as clownish servants Tranio and Biondello, pulling off a complicated onstage costume change with romantic lead Lucentio (Cyrus Lane) and milking a Flamenco guitar flourish and phallic white rose for all they’re worth.
Michael Spencer-Davis hobbles along as lecherous old Gremio, the butt of everyone’s jokes. The character is easily one of the play’s funniest, with every stumble and self-important harrumph being pure gold.
Codpiece jokes abound; in fact, they’re a tad overused. Once characters start emphasizing the latter part of the word “appendix” you may start wishing for a little more repertory theatre and a little less Ted 2.
Lastly, the show’s leads, real-life husband and wife duo Carlson and Deborah Hay, play tamer Petruchio and tamed Katherina. This is where we get to the sexism.
The primary way Abraham skirts the issue is by having Hay play a feral and animalistic Kate. She’s not just an disobedient wife but a raving, frothing lunatic. She tortures her benevolent sister Bianca (Sarah Afful) and physically attacks any poor soul who gets into biting range.
In this way, cocky Petruchio’s taming tactics- that of starvation, physical exertion, and Kafka-esque mind games- seem less a husband prepping a docile wife than the literal taming of a violent sociopath.
This makes for some physical comedy that may have raised eyebrows in another production. The two’s initial “wooing” scene is tantamount to a well-choreographed WWE match; rife with slapstick and very funny. All they’re missing are a couple of steel chairs.
Still, that last speech, where Kate demands that women be submissive to their husbands, remains intact. It takes a certain degree of logical gymnastics to argue that this speech is not an example of Elizabethan-age sexism, and while Kate’s behaviour earlier in the play truly warranted a kind of taming, her entreatment for wives to “…place your hands below your husband’s foot” still stings.
You can respect Kate in the same way you can respect a bear in the wild; not just despite its ferocity, but because of it. Once that same bear is declawed and defanged, left a dancing shadow of its former self, that respect is replaced by pity.
While Abraham’s tactics may have softened the misogynist blow of the play’s resolution, it nevertheless remains, leaving modern audiences to ask themselves whether it’s necessary to continue staging a comedy where a happy ending is a willful woman left degraded and broken for the sake of a problemless marriage.
Instead, are there other plays out there with endings that seek to empower women in a world where so many are still subjugated? That don’t require alterations to mask a contempt for half the world’s population? That would allow talented directors like Chris Abraham to be as entertaining and funny as they’d like without shouldering the baggage of a dated patriarchy?
I’ll leave that to the experts. Personally, though, I think The Taming of the Shrew should be relegated to the scholars, making room on Canadian stages for more progressive pieces.