It’s been a big year for Shakespeare, and 400 years on he can seem as remarkably modern as he does, sometimes, show his age. Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s new production of The Taming of The Shrew, however, shows that modern or not, his work’s enduring legacy is its capacity to not just be recreated, but to be reinvented, too. This production looks forward as much as it looks back. In fact, at times it seems to look in every possible direction at once as you find yourself doing the same for this immersive production, full of spectacle, from Shakespeare Theatre Company. The foyer is turned into an imaginary Italian Market, and during intermission we are invited to join the actors on stage for cake, wine, and music, part of the nuptial celebrations.
This overflowing continues to the text. The production prominently includes a number of songs by Duncan Sheik, best known in the theatre as the songwriter of the much acclaimed Spring Awakening. The same technique from that show is deployed, though to startlingly different effect. Characters step forward from the action to sing songs, in lieu of soliloquies. Here, though, the songs are not tailored to the text, and the Shakespeare, frequently full of silliness, and frivolity, is a far cry from the burgeoning expressionism in Wedekind’s original Spring Awakening. The motivation and intent is significantly less clear and compelling as a result.
…immersive production, full of spectacle, from Shakespeare Theatre Company.
In order to vie for the hand of the glamorous Bianca (Oliver Thornton), her suitors must first find a suitable match for her tempestuous older sister Katherina (Maulik Pancholy), Kate ‘the Shrew.’ The two women’s fates are largely decided – bought and sold – by men, in their absence. This absence is, of course, heightened by the decision to have an all male cast, performed as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time. Just as Iskander is keen to address the challenges of this decision in his directorial notes, Phyllida Lloyd, currently directing an all female production of The Taming of the Shrew, notes that any single gender Shakespeare “opens up certain possibilities,” and this is particularly true of The Taming of the Shrew.
For Iskander, he says it is about Kate’s final, infamous speech. After being relentlessly tormented by her husband – “he is more shrew than she” – Kate submits to her husband’s will completely, and tells the other women they should do the same. Iskander believes that asking a woman to deliver the lines would be “monstrous,” before going on to note that “diversity exists beyond the normative scope of gender.” In the final moments of the production, after her speech, Kate is revealed in a phoenix-like costume suggesting, perhaps, a final liberation. No matter what we make of Kate’s transformation here, this is a little heavy handed, in a production where over-abundance is abundant but rarely gratuitous.
The standout performance, rightfully, is Pancholy’s Kate. He avoids caricature and elicits genuine sympathy from his audience, even before enduring considerable physical abuse from the initially amusing, and eventually repulsive Petruchio of Peter Gadiot. Pancholy confronts Kate’s final speech directly, and compellingly, leaving an uncomfortable frisson in its wake. Telly Leung’s Lucentio is adorable in his devotion, his vocal performance powerful and impressive. Gregory Linington is a delight to watch as Grumio, and the Contessa of Rick Hammerly is as admirable as it is moving.
There’s a richness to Shakespeare’s Padua, ‘where we lay our scene,’ and Jason Sherwood’s set, revels in this richness. An impressive, rotating, structure dominates the stage, while the back wall, covered in gold, seems straight out of a glistening painting by Klimt. Loren Shaw’s opulent and imaginative costumes are a highlight, and Seth Reiser’s lights add to the golden glow that surrounds us. The music is most at ease in intermission, as party guests jam on stage, and unless intended to highlight the more vapid aspects of character, the songs come across lyrically weaker in dramatic context, next to Shakespearean text, than they otherwise might.
If one of the enduring interests in The Taming of the Shrew is the ambiguity and uncertainty of its intentions – its characters’ motivations – this could well be a reason that Iskandar’s production is of interest. His clear sense of his own intent and the text is not always as immanent as is the deliberate sense of spectacle in his lavish production. If it doesn’t quite work in places, it does so with a text that Iskandar, and Literary Manager Drew Lichtenberg note is, itself, historically in need of “repair,” and if it’s not possible solve the difficulties a modern audience should have with The Taming of the Shrew, perhaps we have to continually reinvent it, in the knowledge that it will never quite feel comfortable enough. Like Kate, we submit, but must decide for ourselves on what terms we accept this resolve.
Running Time: 3.5 hours including a 30 minute intermission.
Advisory: Parental Guidance recommended, some violence.