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On with the Shrew!
Boston Ballet does Cranko — and Shakespeare — proud
BY JEFFREY GANTZ
The Taming of the Shrew
Choreography by John Cranko. Music by Karl-Heinz Stolze, after Domenico Scarlatti. Sets and costumes by Susan Benson. Lighting by Pierre Lavoie. Staging by Jane Bourne. Presented by Boston Ballet at the Wang Theatre through November 7.


The Taming of the Shrew is not a play that’s easily tamed to the ballet stage. Although it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts and comes down to us in an uncertain text (he appears to have changed his mind about Hortensio’s role), there’s fireworks in the language (the verbal sparring between Petruchio and Katharine confirms them as soul mates, just as it will Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) and acuity in the characterizations (Bianca’s "innocent" undermining of her sister helps explain Kate’s "shrewish" behavior). Some of this subtle and sophisticated social commentary eluded choreographer John Cranko when he adapted The Taming of the Shrew; his 1969 ballet is more generic and less original than the one he’d made from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin a few years earlier. But in 1995, when it first staged Shrew, Boston Ballet saw past the piece’s Bianca-like "sweet beauty" to the Kate-like "lusty wench" at its heart, and the company does so again in the production that’s at the Wang Theatre through this weekend.

Cranko made the sensible decision to simplify Shakespeare’s subplot, in which Hortensio poses as Litio and Lucentio as Cambio and Tranio as Lucentio and an old merchant as Lucentio’s father. Here, Hortensio and Lucentio and Gremio are all suitors to Bianca, but her father, Baptista, doesn’t want to hear from them (particularly their nocturnal serenading) till some man takes Bianca’s cranky elder sister off his hands. Thumped by Kate, the trio repair to a nearby tavern, where, in a scene doubtless suggested by the play’s Christopher Sly Induction, they watch a plastered Petruchio get fleeced by two whores. In dire need of cash, Petruchio agrees to woo Kate; they, accompanying him, disguise themselves as tutors to gain access to Bianca. (This subterfuge doesn’t make a lot of sense, since Petruchio’s suit has now given them license to court Bianca, but that’s the play’s muddle as well.) In a sequence that echoes the display of Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo, Gremio as singing master, Hortensio as music master, and Lucentio as dancing master show their wares; like Apollo, Bianca chooses the dance. Then in a Carnival scene where she and the two whores all wear the same red domino, Gremio and Hortensio are duped into marrying the whores, each believing his bride is Bianca, and that gives Bianca and Lucentio the opportunity to elope. Petruchio and Kate, meanwhile, are wedded but not bedded, their story proceeding as per Shakespeare, though the dressmaking scene that’s in the play and the program does not take place on stage.

More problematic than missing scenes is Cranko’s watered-down Petruchio. For all that he’s "come to wive it wealthily in Padua," Shakespeare’s protagonist is already flush; what he wants is a wife to match his own intelligence and spirit, and that’s what he gets. Losing his ducats and his duds like a rube, Cranko’s Petruchio woos wealth out of necessity, and after kneeling before Bianca, he does a double take of dismay when she’s replaced with Kate, then shrugs and continues. Cranko’s Lucentio and Bianca pose another difficulty: in their gulling of Hortensio and Gremio and especially in their two pas de deux, they’re like romantic leads; you’d never think that Bianca is a spoiled daddy’s girl or that Lucentio’s love, like Hortensio’s and Gremio’s, is only skin deep. They have the most beautiful music in the ballet as well; saturated with flute and oboe, it conjures an Irish Vaughan Williams. But the rest of the score, which Cranko associate Kurt-Heinz Stolze fashioned from compositions by Domenico Scarlatti, is an erratic patchwork that doesn’t equal the Tchaikovsky collage Stolze created for Onegin. The outer parts of the overture sound like Bonanza outtakes, and much of what follows would be more appropriate for a Broadway chorus than a ballet corps. It’s not even clear whether Stolze is aiming at Prokofiev or Stravinsky; the echoes range from Tchaikovsky to Copland (a hint of El Salón México in the food fight that Petruchio initiates). And as heart-wrenching as the second pas de deux for Bianca and Lucentio is, it doesn’t resolve, instead merely swirling and sinking to the ground like the lovers. The Boston Ballet Orchestra under music director Jonathan McPhee does a creditable job with this complicated and not always rewarding material; the notables include Freda Locker on piano and harpsichord, Kathleen O’Donnell on flute, Barbara La Fitte on oboe, Robert Couture doing the sleazy tavern trombone slides, and Jeffrey Fischer playing the slide whistle that represents Gremio’s attempts at singing.

Susan Benson’s sets are another patchwork, generic Renaissance (compare Alain Vaës’s work for Romeo and Juliet) coupled with a pastel red-rose motif and a landscape (for the journeys Petruchio and Kate make on horseback) that suggests "the rain it raineth every day." The pastel peasant costumes and particularly the ladies’ mob caps are a further puzzle; if you just wandered into the Wang, you might think Boston Ballet was doing Oliver! And though there’s wit in the allusions to Balanchine, the choreography more often just looks derivative, the three suitors cavorting at Baptista’s door like Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and the two whores carrying on like the stepsisters in his Cinderella. The dances for the corps include lots of peasanty skipping and jumping and head bobbing; it doesn’t make sense for the city that Shakespeare calls "nursery of arts," though Cranko’s daisy chains and other patterns show a command of space. The duets are all about lifts; there’s some jumping and flashy footwork for Petruchio and Lucentio but very little for Kate and Bianca beyond acting and flying.

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Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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