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
Sound by Christopher Walker. With Harry S. Murphy, Patricia Kelley,
Conley-Williams, Scott Harrison, Benjamin Evett, Jeremy Geidt, Will LeBow,
Kristin Flanders, Jason Weinberg, Caroline Hall, Michael Cecchi-Azzolina,
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.
Acclaimed director Andrei Serban's
last outing for the American
Repertory Theatre, nine years ago, was Twelfth Night. Now he
Shakespeare plays are subtitled What You Will. Serban's eclectic
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
from male chauvinist piggery to marital complicity to same-sex pairing, it
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 --
across the stage to the strains of "I Hate Men" from Kiss Me Kate,
1948 Cole Porter musical built around Shakespeare's early, notoriously
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
stage, he has thrown everything at the play but -- as most feminists would
him do -- the book.
Many of Serban's ornamentations are ingenious; some are hilarious
certainly in keeping with the crudeness Shakespeare built into this
geometric set design, erected around and before that bus by Christine Jones, is
Zuber's costumes are wickedly whimsical; lighting designer
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
and Superman, a couple of superb actors to play Katharina and
Moreover, Serban has retained the oft-cut "Induction" that makes
Shrew (performed here by the ART on tour) part of an elaborate joke
on a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly. He has even added an
ending -- from a source or a ripoff called The Taming of a Shrew --
renders the Induction a frame. This makes The Taming of the Shrew
primer for male supremacists than the ultimate male fantasy, as conjured
sodden sleep by a bibulous lout. Good trick!
Serban also has some intriguing ideas about the marital and
aspects of the play. He seeks to soften the play's sexism, without winking
it, by reaching down under the pratfalls and sadistic shenanigans to
medieval mystery about the soul submitting to the spirit. As Dartmouth
professor Peter Saccio points out in an essay printed in the ART
the structure of Shakespeare's society was not egalitarian but
someone had to be on top for order to thrive. In Petruchio's phrase,
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
delights of taming her "inner shrew" by projecting her unhappiness with it
Petruchio. After prowling through the early scenes in a sort of devil/cat
brandishing both tongue and whip more for self-protection than assault,
Flanders's Katharina does indeed seem freer, jauntier, once she learns to
her husband's game. Even her spiked hair relaxes.
And Serban's staging of the wager scene, with its now-nauseating
to female submission (an utterance that's damn long to wink through) is
clever and exquisite. Flanders speaks Katharina's troublesome speech,
contemplative pause, with a straight face and a beautiful cadence, at the
sinking to her knees and going into a long, meltingly slow bow that
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!
gorgeous moment of mutual surrender that Petruchio follows by splitting
cash he has made off Katharina's show of abasement with her -- reminding
that in an Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy act, without Charlie there's no
Yet to some degree Serban's deft handling of this scene is too
late. Flanders and Reilly have worked in charming tandem through the
to bring us there, moving from the first act's strutting fisticuffs and
kidnap (Petruchio imprisons the heretofore pant-clad Katharina first in a
and then in a plastic bag before running off with her) to an
admittedly-machismo-tinged tenderness. Still, it's easy to lose the
of the relationship in the production's outrageous fray of vaudeville and
cross-dressing, its interpolation of embellishments ranging from "Brush Up
Shakespeare" to "Mambo Italiano." I found myself thinking that if Serban
had a few more weeks of rehearsal, in which to do nothing but strip away,
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
the Mafia to The Terminator. Although Serban has wisely trimmed the
play's more arcane slapstick, turning Petruchio's servant Grumio into more
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
carries a hand mike) while old lech Gremio is a gold-chained jogger
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
kissing on the lips. And Katharina and Petruchio -- he wearing a
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
drag queen. He does imitations ranging from The Godfather to Arnold
Schwarzenegger (if you can imagine Arnold uttering words like "irksome
scold"). A lesser actor would have difficulty steering a character through
the bits, but Reilly manages, presenting a Petruchio cooler than brutish.
The less experienced if talented Caroline Hall, as
sister Bianca, has more trouble extracting a character from Serban's
bottomless bag of tricks. She is first presented as a pink-clad bimbo from
early 1960s, waggling her lace-trimmed panties at the crowd. Vulgar
sugar water, she metamorphoses into a scantily clad pink-haired sexpot
sadomasochistic sex with "tutor" Lucentio. And by the wager scene, married
looking like something out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, she becomes
outright surly. In a nice touch, she and Hortensio's new wife first turn
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
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
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
Maria?" How do you hold a tornado in your hand?