The Taming of the Shrew – Theatre Review: Southwest Shakespeare Company, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

There’s a mistake Shakespearean scholars often make. When writing about the Bard they assume without explanation that the reader knows what a ‘Folio’ or a ‘Quarto’ is. The average reader doesn’t. But it pays to know in order to make sense of what those essayists are writing about. As the mobsters in the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate advise, Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

For the record, think of the folio as the first official publication of a manuscript. They were expensive. When you hear of a quarto, imagine a paperback edition, or a movie tie-in. These were cheaply made and cost the reader considerably less than a folio. During the Elizabethan era, authors had no copyright in the way we know today. The theatre companies owned the scripts. Whenever they needed extra cash they would print a quarto to help with costs. Shakespeare’s plays were first officially published seven years after his death in 1623 in what is called the First Folio.

Southwest Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Taming of the Shrew, now playing in rep with As You Like It at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until March 9, is considered to be among Shakespeare’s early comedies. Though no exact date is recorded, it is thought to have been written somewhere between 1590 and 1592. It’s important to remember the dates. No one knows for sure where the source of the piece came from, but among the many works of classic literature that reflect several of the play’s plot elements, none are as identical as the work of an anonymously written play published as a quarto with the lengthy title A Pleasant Conceited Historie, called the Taming of a Shrew.

Both told of an ill-tempered, nagging shrew called Kate who needed taming, and both framed the central story with an unrelated introductory scene, referred to as an Induction. Curiously, unlike the anonymously written quarto Induction of ‘A’ Shrew, Shakespeare’s folio of ‘The’ Shrew never had a concluding sequence, making the tale of Katherine a play-within-a-play, but with no back-to-reality resolution.

The Induction tells of a drunken workman tricked into believing he’s really an amnesiac nobleman with a beautiful young wife (a masquerading page boy in drag) who is treated by some travelling players to an impromptu performance of The Taming of The Shrew, transporting the opening setting of England to Italy and setting the mood of farcical identity swapping and the encouragement not to believe anything we’re about to see as it’s all fake. With Shakespeare, we never know what that drunken worker thought of his entertainment. It’s a hanging induction without a conclusion. But in the cheaper quarto, he reappears at the end and declares that he now knows how to tame a shrew. It’s not uncommon for productions of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy to cut the Induction altogether, though, interestingly, some productions that keep the setup of the duped drunken worker add their own ending based on how the quarto concludes, even though it’s not really considered Shakespeare. The new SWS cuts it and goes straight for Kate.

In director Amie Bjorklund’s vigorous new production, even though The Taming of The Shrew is no longer a play-within-a-play, the spirit of a playfully sturdy comedy is left intact. The delivery is intentionally broad while characters continually speak in asides to the audience letting us know that they’re fully aware they’re really in performance. When Petruchio (Quinn Mattfeld) arrives late for his wedding, he enters not from the opening on the upper level of Patrick Walsh’s set where the ensemble expects him, but from the back of Mesa’s Piper Repertory house. As he passes along the aisle he ad-libs to the audience, thanking everyone for coming, adding “I hope you bought a gift.”

Plus, there’s plenty of other invented comical business. When talking of what money can buy, Petruchio searches his pockets for his purse but can’t find it. While attempting to look more appealing to Katherine (Betsy Mugavero), as a last-second thought he quickly removes his jacket and strikes a pose, and later when he kneels before her to offer himself in marriage he groans at the pressure of the gesture to his knee. And like Donald O’Conner’s stage act of straightening his rubber-like face, when Katherine slaps the man with considerable force across the cheek, a comically dazed Petruchio faces the audience and straightens his jaw. You can practically see the stars circling above his head.

The central roles of Petruchio and Katherine are played by a real-life husband and wife team. They’re the Burton and Taylor of SWS, and it’s clear that with all the snarling and the broadness of the pairing, they’re having fun. And they’re fun to watch. In fact, the sparring partners work so well as a comic duo – when Katherine loses a shoe she hobbles throughout the rest of the scene in another piece of comic business – that when the characters leave the stage and the play focuses on the subplot of Katherine’s sister Bianca (Kelly Nicole) and the shenanigans of her masquerading three suitors Gremio (Jim Coates), Luciento (Dalton T. Davis), and Hortensio (Clay Sanderson), despite the comic energy of the able ensemble, it’s Petruchio and Katherine you’re interested in. You want them back on stage as soon as possible.

When Shakespeare took the quartoA’ Shrew and wrote his own The’ Shrew, he may have kept the taming of Kate plot intact but he added the Bianco subplot, her suitors, and the Italian setting himself. The farcical complications of those men pretending to be someone else in order to win the hand of the young woman have always felt like padding. The strength of the central plot between the shrew and her tamer overshadows everything else, and here where the pairing of Mattfeld and Mugavero is so robust and bursting with fiery comic energy, the weakness behind Shakespeare’s construction is underlined even further. You go through the motions of following what happens with the younger sister, but it’s really Kate and Petruchio that holds your attention.

What should also be addressed is the play’s controversial interpretation of being misogynistic. While this is not the forum to explore such things in lengthy detail, it’s difficult not to acknowledge Kate’s final speech, the longest one in the play, where she talks of female submission now that she has been ‘tamed.’ The problem has always been this: How should it be viewed? Hearing that it’s a wife’s duty to place her hand under her husband’s foot as a gesture of loyalty never comes easy. Sometimes it’s played with a knowing wink where Katherine delivers these words with risible malice suggesting she doesn’t really believe a word she’s saying. Sometimes it’s played with slapstick. For example, at the conclusion of the 1990 New York Shakespeare Festival production, Tracey Ullman ‘accidentally’ knocked Petruchio ungracefully to the floor. In this SWS production, Katherine delivers the speech straight but ends it with a good-natured slap on her husband’s butt.

Perhaps the best way to view the play’s theme and it’s conclusion is not to view it through the prism of present-day awareness of male chauvinism and feminine inequality, but to think back at a time when the disparity between husbands and their serving wives was clear. To think otherwise when the cultural roles of the past are undeniable is to fool yourselves. Director Bjorklund was wise to keep the period of the piece firmly set in the past. Updating to appeal to a more enlightened view becomes redundant. After all, considering that Shakespeare’s intentions were to appeal to a 16th-century audience never imagining that 400 years later his plays would continue to be performed puts his comedy into a better perspective. Also, keep in mind he would never have known that what may have been a passing thought to get a laugh from an appreciative Elizabethan audience at the time of writing would be analyzed in such great detail for years to come.

Those two goons in the musical Kiss Me, Kate were right. In order to enjoy and appreciate this hugely entertaining production of The Taming of the Shrew, you really should brush up your Shakespeare. It makes all the difference to the value of enjoyment.

The Taming of the Shrew continues at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until March 9

Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant

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