One of the things about getting old is that your short-term memory leaves you. So even though I had read rtb’s review of The Taming of the Shrew, which is the first production this year of the Public’s Free Shakespeare in the Park, by the time I saw the play a lot of what I saw was a happy surprise.
That morning I got to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park later than I’d planned. Tickets for that evening’s performance were already being handed out and I got to the end of a very long line. By the time I got to the front of the line they no longer had doubles (only two tickets per person). They were giving out single tickets that were close to each other for people wanting deuces but since I only wanted one ticket they handed me one from another pile. Wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. Then I went off to do the second part of my Hamilton Tour of NYC. After I’d had dinner I wandered back to the Delacorte and sat on a park bench waiting for the doors to open. People were enjoying the nice evening – it had been a warm day but a cool breeze was coming through. I noticed a lot of teenagers gathered for the show. It turned out that students from Frank Sinatra High School in Astoria were going to see this performance. There also were a lot of educators in the audience. There was a small ruckus when a raccoon came over to explore the garbage falling out of the garbage cans. Several of the people followed the raccoon when he ran up a tree and kept getting closer and closer to him. The rest of us kept warning them that it was a wild animal but the cell phone photographers and videographers didn’t care.
I was looking forward to seeing this performance of Shrew. It was an all-female cast and was directed by a woman (Phyllida Lloyd). But would that be enough to overcome the play’s misogyny? As I recalled, the production I’d seen last year by the New York Classical Theatre (another free Shakespeare in the park company that performs in different parks in Manhattan and Brooklyn) used the induction, where the story is a play acted out for a drunk made to believe he is a nobleman, which makes the play one step removed from the audience and so the sexism could be taken less seriously. I also recalled a coda to Katherina’s speech at the end – something about love that softened the horrific speech about obeying your husband.
It turned out that my single ticket from the other pile was a good thing. I got a seat just a few rows up from the stage and slightly off to the side. While we were waiting several raccoons ran backstage and none of us were sure if they were going to start surrounding us. And during the show a cloud of gnats covered the stage for at least an entire scene. I don’t know how the actors kept talking and going on with the show as if nothing was happening. I was surrounded by HS students and I was afraid that they’d be noisy but except for one girl behind me who could not shut up (and was often quieted by her friend) and the boy next to me who kept checking his cell phone (and was often told by his friend to stop) it was a good crowd. Everyone laughed when they should and there were anguished cries when Petruchio (Janet McTeer) threw the meat on the ground at a hungry Katherina (Cush Jumbo). The audience was also very distressed when at the end of her final speech, Katherina lay down on the stage, her face buried in the floor with her arm outstretched and her hand palm up for Petruchio to step on.
The stage is set up as a circus with trailers on either side that acted as homes for some of the characters. It starts with a beauty pageant, which at first was surprising but soon made sense when you see Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore) fall in love with Bianca (Gayle Rankin) at first sight. Gremio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Donna Lynne Champlin) are also in love with Bianca’s beauty. No one seems to really know Bianca – it’s just her beauty that draws them to her and makes them want to marry her. Donald Trump makes the announcements about each of the contestants, so it sets you in the mood for a comedy.
The men are all dressed in suits and it did not take long for me to see them only as men. I’m not sure that having women playing men’s roles made any difference to me. What I saw and heard were men. Some of the actors were also musicians (Gilmore, Champlin, Anne L. Nathan, Leenya Rideout, Pearl Rhein, and Jackie Sanders), who shredded their guitars and other instruments. Petruchio’s entrance is made while guitars are rocking – a trapdoor opens, he kisses a girl goodbye, throws her back down into the hole, and walks up onto the stage. He’s dressed in a leather jacket with a skull on the back, jeans, and boots and is the sexiest Petruchio I’ve ever seen. McTeer’s Petruchio is crass and full of himself but also charming – the quintessential bad boy. Another great moment is after Petruchio and Katherina marry and he carries her off, they leave in an RV that bursts through the back curtain and onto the stage. Some funny moments are Petruchio taking a leak against a pole on the stage – since McTeer had her back to us I couldn’t tell how the water was coming out but there it was splashing against the pole. And one of the actors (Teresa Avia Lim) played Petruchio’s dog. She looked adorable in her dog suit but what was funnier was when she later appeared as Biondello the other characters kept making references to dogs when talking to Biondello. Gold, who is a standup comedian, did a routine when Gremio is supposed to be narrating Petruchio’s search for Katherina after she becomes a runaway bride. The standup was typical old-time male chauvinist humor.
There were many times when the play made me uncomfortable. During the final scene when the men are talking about the women who have left the room and betting each other over who has the most obedient wife, it was the first time I was seeing women playing men and having fun with it. Though sometimes I still had to remind myself they were really women. Having women in the men’s roles did not help to alleviate the misogyny throughout the play. What did help was when after Katherina’s final speech she is given the pageant crown and flowers, which shocks her into reality and she goes crazy ripping everything off and being dragged below the stage through the trapdoor. Bianca is quickly crowned the winner and now it’s her turn to look shocked. But it all ends with the musicians playing “Bad Reputation” while all the actors dance (with Jumbo joining them) and sing and rip open their shirts to reveal their bras. That moment felt empowering. It was funny but it was only when they were letting their hair down and their shirts off that I realized that all these great rock musicians were women. Like I said, I wasn’t seeing women – I was seeing men.
Lloyd did a great job of keeping the play moving (there’s no intermission). Special shout-out to Mark Thompson for his set and costume design. Sound design by Mark Menard was brilliant also. The sound was always clear. All the actors were wonderful but I really enjoyed McTeer and Jumbo in the lead roles. I’d read about McTeer so I was expecting her to be good and she surpassed my expectations. Jumbo I already loved on The Good Wife and was happy to see her shine on stage. The other actors were Adrienne C. Moore (Tranio), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Baptista), Stacey Sargeant (Grumio), Nathan (Pedant), Candy Buckley (Vincentio), Rideout (Widow), Rhein (Officer), Sanders (Servant), and Natalie Woolams-Torres (Servant).
By Carene Lydia Lopez