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April 16, 2010

Chicago Shakespeare Theater puts on a new Shrew

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has often drawn modern criticism for its dated portrayals of relationships and gender roles that celebrate domineering men and submissive women. In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s most recent production of this work, however, a modern frame story turns this theme on its head, boldly juxtaposing Shakespeare’s depiction of patriarchy in medieval Italy with a frame that centers on the breakup of a troubled lesbian relationship.

The chemistry between Katherina (the titular “shrew”) and Petruchio (her suitor) is an essential element in the success of any production of this play, and in this respect, Ian Bedford as Petruchio and Bianca Amato as Katherina are well-matched. The duo is at their best when they are alone together, trading barbs in their fast-paced battle of wits (and sometimes blows). Bedford is straightforward and businesslike in his efforts to “tame” Katherina, with the exception of his ridiculous wedding scene, and Amato is able to perfectly capture the breaking of Katherina’s spirit, with the injustices she suffers clearly leaving their mark upon her strong features.

The scenes in Padua enjoy a fairly standard interpretation, and are executed well, if not innovatively. The actors attack their lines with a bombast that borders on the overzealous, and director Josie Rourke misses no opportunity to inject the events in Padua with blatantly comedic elements, from obscene costumes to breakable scenery. In several instances, the actors’ body language takes on a modern swagger, which further blurs the distinction between ancient and modern. It is a consistently entertaining play, but the true genius of the production as a whole rests in the frame story’s interpretation of the classic and its themes.

The frame story is set in modern times, and features the cast of a production of The Taming of the Shrew during tech rehearsal on the eve of opening night. It begins by offering a brutally accurate portrayal of the backstage clash of egos so integral to any major stage production (a dynamic well-known to anyone who has ever spent time behind the curtain). Caricatures of theatrical stereotypes, from the prima donna lead actor to the harried and frazzled director, are all out in full force, but fade into the background as the relationship between the director and the actress playing Katherina comes into the spotlight.

As the events in sixteenth-century Padua develop, so do those of the parallel storyline, and Katherina’s Shakespearian power struggles with Petruchio are eerily mirrored by the impulsiveness and passion of her relationship with the play’s director and her lover. The play features the oldest, most traditional relationship of a patriarchal husband and wife in contrast with a very modern, openly lesbian couple.

This is old ground for playwright Neil LaBute, who has built a career on his theatrical studies of unconventional romantic relationships. It is rare that a play this thought-provoking remains subtle in its execution, but LaBute manages to raise questions without demanding or forcing answers. Themes such as the importance of name and identity are further explored in the frame, building on the motifs that run through Shakespeare’s work.

Furthermore, the dialogue in the frame story is rife with Shakespearian bawdiness, which further provokes the question of whether modern relationships are different from those in Shakespeare’s Padua, even after centuries of changes in gender roles. Yes, we are watching a possessive woman trying to tame her irreverent and promiscuous lesbian partner, but besides the differences in gender, the two relationships share many of their essential themes and struggles.

Most importantly, the modern-day story works. The similarities are clear but never feel forced, and the frame, for the most part, maintains a sense of believability. It is not without its weak moments—Mary Beth Fisher’s monologue as the director seems overblown, a break from the heartbreakingly realistic tension that runs through the rest of her role—but overall, the story offers a context in which to make the dated aspects of Taming of the Shrew not only acceptable, but relevant to modern audiences.

To portray a work accurately while still offering a critique requires delicacy and skill, and while Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production isn’t flawless, it manages to remain both charming and thought-provoking.

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