The Boston Phoenix
February 12 - 19, 1998

[Dance Reviews]

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Untamed Shrew

Andrei Serban's ART production is a wild ride

by Carolyn Clay

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, By William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Andrei Serban. Set design by Christine Jones. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Michael Chybowski. Sound by Christopher Walker. With Harry S. Murphy, Patricia Kelley, Dmetrius Conley-Williams, Scott Harrison, Benjamin Evett, Jeremy Geidt, Will LeBow, Kristin Flanders, Jason Weinberg, Caroline Hall, Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, Don Reilly, Stephen Rowe, Remo Airaldi, Robert Brustein, and Danielle Delgado. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, in repertory through March 21.

Taming of the Shrew Acclaimed director Andrei Serban's last outing for the American Repertory Theatre, nine years ago, was Twelfth Night. Now he thinks all Shakespeare plays are subtitled What You Will. Serban's eclectic staging of The Taming of the Shrew is nothing if not freewheeling. A journey from Pisa to Padua to Verona, from Plautus to Dante to commedia to Pirandello, from male chauvinist piggery to marital complicity to same-sex pairing, it was characterized by ART artistic director Robert Brustein on opening night as "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." Whereupon you could almost hear a certain star of the international avant-garde shout "ribbit" in Romanian.

You know you're not at the old Globe Theatre anymore when the lights dim and a bandage-bound female figure -- a cross between an alien and a mummy -- hobbles across the stage to the strains of "I Hate Men" from Kiss Me Kate, the 1948 Cole Porter musical built around Shakespeare's early, notoriously sexist comedy. By the time "Mr. Toad" hits the brakes of the large yellow ART-touring-company bus that serves the production as both bandwagon and inner stage, he has thrown everything at the play but -- as most feminists would have him do -- the book.

Many of Serban's ornamentations are ingenious; some are hilarious -- and certainly in keeping with the crudeness Shakespeare built into this comedy. The geometric set design, erected around and before that bus by Christine Jones, is striking; Catherine Zuber's costumes are wickedly whimsical; lighting designer Michael Chybowski contributes boldly to effects that hover between David Hockney and cartoon. And the director has in Don Reilly and Kristin Flanders, who first threw their combined Life Force our way in last season's ART Man and Superman, a couple of superb actors to play Katharina and Petruchio.

Moreover, Serban has retained the oft-cut "Induction" that makes The Shrew (performed here by the ART on tour) part of an elaborate joke played on a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly. He has even added an alternative ending -- from a source or a ripoff called The Taming of a Shrew -- that renders the Induction a frame. This makes The Taming of the Shrew less a primer for male supremacists than the ultimate male fantasy, as conjured in sodden sleep by a bibulous lout. Good trick!

Serban also has some intriguing ideas about the marital and metaphysical aspects of the play. He seeks to soften the play's sexism, without winking at it, by reaching down under the pratfalls and sadistic shenanigans to unearth a medieval mystery about the soul submitting to the spirit. As Dartmouth College professor Peter Saccio points out in an essay printed in the ART News, the structure of Shakespeare's society was not egalitarian but hierarchical: someone had to be on top for order to thrive. In Petruchio's phrase, "Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life,/An awful rule, and right supremacy,/And, to be short, what not that's sweet and happy."

In pop-psychological terms, Serban's reading has Katharina discovering the delights of taming her "inner shrew" by projecting her unhappiness with it onto Petruchio. After prowling through the early scenes in a sort of devil/cat suit, brandishing both tongue and whip more for self-protection than assault, Flanders's Katharina does indeed seem freer, jauntier, once she learns to play her husband's game. Even her spiked hair relaxes.

And Serban's staging of the wager scene, with its now-nauseating 44-line ode to female submission (an utterance that's damn long to wink through) is both clever and exquisite. Flanders speaks Katharina's troublesome speech, after a contemplative pause, with a straight face and a beautiful cadence, at the end sinking to her knees and going into a long, meltingly slow bow that delivers both head and open hand to the ground before her husband's feet. Whereupon Reilly's Petruchio rises, drops to his knees, and does exactly the same! It's a gorgeous moment of mutual surrender that Petruchio follows by splitting the cash he has made off Katharina's show of abasement with her -- reminding us that in an Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy act, without Charlie there's no act.

Yet to some degree Serban's deft handling of this scene is too little, too late. Flanders and Reilly have worked in charming tandem through the second act to bring us there, moving from the first act's strutting fisticuffs and virtual kidnap (Petruchio imprisons the heretofore pant-clad Katharina first in a skirt and then in a plastic bag before running off with her) to an admittedly-machismo-tinged tenderness. Still, it's easy to lose the evolution of the relationship in the production's outrageous fray of vaudeville and cross-dressing, its interpolation of embellishments ranging from "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" to "Mambo Italiano." I found myself thinking that if Serban had had a few more weeks of rehearsal, in which to do nothing but strip away, he might have delivered a Shrew not just inventive but profound.

As it is, we're in the Land of Lotsa Lazzi here, with nods to everything from the Mafia to The Terminator. Although Serban has wisely trimmed the play's more arcane slapstick, turning Petruchio's servant Grumio into more of a sinister retainer than an Elizabethan clown, he adds plenty of his own. Commedia dell'arte stretches its broad legs across several centuries, with Lucentio's servant, Biondello, wearing the traditional threads (though he carries a hand mike) while old lech Gremio is a gold-chained jogger sporting a fanny pack. Marriage-brokering dad Baptista, in the person of Jeremy Geidt, is a ghoulish, tongue-flicking Uncle Fester. Scott Harrison and Benjamin Evett, as switch-hitting master and servant Lucentio and Tranio, do a lot of unexplained kissing on the lips. And Katharina and Petruchio -- he wearing a flesh-colored muscleman body suit -- have their initial encounter in a boxing ring.

Indeed, in the course of the first act, Petruchio is presented as a biker, a rock star, a businessman, a commando, a Travolta, a cartoon gladiator, and a drag queen. He does imitations ranging from The Godfather to Arnold Schwarzenegger (if you can imagine Arnold uttering words like "irksome brawling scold"). A lesser actor would have difficulty steering a character through all the bits, but Reilly manages, presenting a Petruchio cooler than brutish.

The less experienced if talented Caroline Hall, as Katharina's manageable sister Bianca, has more trouble extracting a character from Serban's seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. She is first presented as a pink-clad bimbo from the early 1960s, waggling her lace-trimmed panties at the crowd. Vulgar beneath the sugar water, she metamorphoses into a scantily clad pink-haired sexpot having sadomasochistic sex with "tutor" Lucentio. And by the wager scene, married and looking like something out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, she becomes outright surly. In a nice touch, she and Hortensio's new wife first turn their backs to, then walk out on, Katharina's speech.

Among the supporting players, Harry S. Murphy is a base but oddly lovable Sly, wandering in and out of The Shrew as if it were an audience-participation outing by the Living Theatre. Will LeBow puts an amusingly flitty spin on Bianca's superannuated suitor, Gremio. And ART artistic honcho Robert Brustein (who alternates with Jerry Flynn) takes the boards for the first time in years, as a a flustered, Edwardian Vincentio swinging a chianti bottle and later an ax. Perhaps he thought that, by being in the trenches, he could exercise a little control over the production's commander. But with Serban it's a little like "How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?" How do you hold a tornado in your hand?