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The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare in the Park)

Janet McTeer plays Petruchio as a swaggering cowboy in a leather jacket and shabby jeans, so macho that her character seems to be in on the joke.

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Cush Jumbo as Katherina and Janet McTeer as Petruchio in a scene from “The Taming of the Shrew” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Cush Jumbo as Katherina and Janet McTeer as Petruchio in a scene from Phyllida Lloyd’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

If you missed director Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Henry IV for London’s Donmar Warehouse which appeared at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, don’t miss her rollicking all-female version of the now politically incorrect comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, first of this year’s Free Shakespeare in the Park. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she has cast Tony, Olivier, Golden Globe and Drama Desk Award winner Janet McTeer who turns in a virtuoso performance as Petruchio giving the unmarriageable Katherina a run for her money. Best known in America for her films of Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady, stage director Lloyd has previously worked with McTeer in a 2003 Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and the 2009 Broadway revival of Mary Stuart that obtained McTeer her second Tony nomination.

Aside from the obvious misogyny of Shakespeare’s comedy for modern audiences, there is the problem of the heroine’s unpalatable final speech in which she berates women for not being more subservient to their husbands. Lloyd’s solution is to frame the play as a country-western beauty pageant to choose “this year’s Miss Lombardy” whose emcee sounds an awful lot like presidential candidate Donald Trump. In fact, there is a good deal of satiric political talk with comedian Judy Gold as suitor Gremio doing an interpolated monologue complaining that the director is a woman and that “we’ve got a broad running for President.”

The actual play (still set in Padua, Italy) becomes the talent portion of the pageant in which all of the macho male characters are played by women having the time of their lives parodying behavior they have probably witnessed since childhood. Set in Mark Thompson’s red and white carnival tent, the play is a circus in which all the characters with their oversized personalities are the clowns. The style is knockabout farce which at times verges on screwball comedy. Although nominally set in Italy, the play appears to take place in South Western U.S.A., with Thompson’s costumes that straddle the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, a period when traditional female roles were beginning to come apart.

Both judiciously trimmed and updated (“petticoats” for “farthingales”), the story remains intact. Although wealthy Baptista’s younger daughter Bianca, an attractive blonde, has three suitors (middle-aged Gremio and Hortensio and young Lucentio), he will not allow her to be wed until her older sister Katherina can find a husband. Unfortunately, her shrewish tongue and violent behavior has driven away all available single men. When Petruchio of Verona arrives to find a rich wife, his friend Hortensio suggests he woo Katherina whose father will be glad to get her off his hands. While Lucentio and Hortensio dress up and pretend to be tutors in order to woo Bianca behind her father’s back, Petruchio using reverse psychology convinces Katherina to become engaged to him.

Janet McTeer (center) as the winner of last year’s “Miss Lombardy Pageant” in “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Delacorte Theater(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Janet McTeer (center) as the winner of last year’s “Miss Lombardy Pageant” in “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Delacorte Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

In order to begin taming her willful behavior, Petruchio comes late and drunk to the wedding and immediately takes her away in his van. Once home, he refuses all food as not good enough, doesn’t allow her to sleep, and rejects the clothing for her sister’s wedding as not worthy of her. In the meantime, Lucentio, who has won Bianca’s hand, now must come up with a father to vouch for his financial worth. A substitute is hired before the real Vincentio arrives causing much confusion. With Bianca and Lucentio married and Hortensio now wedded to a rich widow, Petruchio returns with the tamed Katherina and the new husbands make a bet as to which of their wives is the most obedient. No need to reveal which one wins in this wacky comedy of character.

McTeer plays Petruchio as a swaggering cowboy in a leather jacket and shabby jeans, so macho that her character seems to be in on the joke. Her powers of invention are such that she never seems to do the same thing twice. Bigger than life, her suitor for Katherina’s hand seems to win by sheer outrageousness. She is so convincing that one forgets that she is impersonating a man.

On the other hand, Cush Jumbo as the so-called shrew in a baby doll dress and pigtails gives as good as she gets and this battle of the sexes (of course, played by two performers of the same sex) is an even fight. For the record, Jumbo, best known for her Lucca Quinn on CBS’s The Good Wife, has appeared in Lloyd’s Julius Caesar as well as in her own one-woman show, Josephine and I, which played in 2015 at the Public Theater, also directed by Lloyd.

Gayle Rankin as the well-behaved sister beautifully shows her frustration with her lot in her family as well as the requirements of her gender role. Rosa Gilmore makes her suitor Lucentio a typical juvenile ingénue who attempts to sweep her off her feet.

Among other memorable portrayals are LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the forceful father Baptista, Adrienne C. Moore as the exuberant servant Tranio masquerading as his master Lucentio, Donna Lynne Champlin as the sardonic suitor Hortensio, Candy Buckley as Lucentio’s incensed father Vincentio, and the aforementioned Gold as the acerbic suitor Gremio with cigar and a Donald Trump-like delivery, all of whom seem to be having a great deal of fun. Six of the actors double as musicians playing Sam Davis’ original musical score.

Leah J. Loukas’ hair and wig design is an important part of the production, turning the actresses into convincing looking men. As has been true in recent years, the sound design in the Delacorte by Mark Menard allows every word to be clearly understood. Lighting designer Robert Wierzel makes uses of a wide ranging color palette, different in various scenes. The production credits both fight choreography by Lisa Kopitsky and movement by Ann Yee. Among the show’s many in-jokes is the finale in which all the performers sing Joan Jett’s “Bad Behavior,” used in the movie, 10 Things I Hate About You – an updated high school version of The Taming of the Shrew!

The Taming of the Shrew (through June 26, 2016)

Shakespeare in the Park

The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81 Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan

Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line or by lottery at http://www.publictheater.org

Running time: two hours without an intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (647 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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