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article imageReview: Toronto High Park production attempts to tame Shrew's misogyny Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 19, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - “The Taming of the Shrew” remains one of Shakespeare's most problematic and debated comedies, in its endorsement of male-dominated gender politics from four centuries ago. Is it possible to adapt the text in a way that's acceptable in 2013?
Nope, not really. But Canadian Stage tries its best in its new production, which opened earlier this week, and the result is highly entertaining, though certainly not perfect.
Shakespeare in High Park's Shrew (one of two alternating productions this summer, the other being Macbeth) updates the Bard's notoriously sexist play by setting it in a contemporary world of rich, partying, Beverly Hills-style millennial brats, swilling down frappuccinos and snapping wedding pics with iPhones. Director Ted Witzel re-imagines Katherina (Sophie Goulet), the headstrong lady of the title, as a sulky, smoking, bad-tempered rebel girl in shades and ripped, dark clothing; it's not so much The Taming of the Shrew as The Mellowing of the Cranky Punk Chick.
Kate's shrew-tamer is Petruchio (Kevin MacDonald), a gentleman from Verona who's encouraged to woo her after her father, Baptista (Hume Baugh), declares that he won't allow his other daughter, the more conventional Bianca (played by Jennifer Dzialoszynski as a pink-clad Katy Perry clone), to marry until Kate gets hitched. Pursuing Bianca are Hortensio (Greg Gale), Gremio (Marvin Ishmael) and Lucentio – or in this case, Lucentia (Tiana Asperjan), who disguises herself as a Latin tutor to get closer to Bianca in secret.
When Petruchio wins Kate, he carries her back home and subjects her to nonstop deprivation and manipulation, while berating his servants with physical and verbal abuse, all in an act to “tame” her rebelliousness. These scenes are the most potentially dangerous: Petruchio's behaviour is easily interpreted as marital abuse today. But Witzel's version of the play is a very physically frantic one, and he tries to stage these scenes in keeping with that screwball-comedy sense. He also makes Petruchio's and Kate's initial hookup a lot more consensual than Shakespeare intended, and Kate's final monologue about submissive wives is given a radically different reading and tone. Not that it's all done convincingly, but it at least shows Witzel's willingness to address these issues.
The new lesbian subplot with Lucentia and Bianca works better as an attempt to restore the balance and modernize the play. On one level, it subtly empowers Bianca by giving her the chance to accept her true sexual orientation. The only real problem this poses is the final contest, in which three newlywed “husbands”, including Lucentia, test the obedience of their wives. Does this make Lucentia the “man” in their marriage? Witzel doesn't make it clear.
What really carries this production is its nonstop energy and enthusiastic performances. Witzel handles the whole thing with a quick pace, sharp timing, lots of action and bits of added comedic business all over the stage; as in last year's Midsummer Night's Dream, there's even a fun audience-participation moment. MacDonald owns the show with a Petruchio who's full of so much charm and confidence that you almost begin to root for him. (But you'll be wondering why he's dressed like Indiana Jones for the first few scenes, complete with fedora and brown vest; he's just missing the bullwhip.) Goulet makes for a strong Kate, beginning with teenage sulks and fits of rage before evolving into a more full-blooded personality.
Also good is Gale, with a finely tuned sense of physical comedy, and Mina James has some fun moments with MacDonald as Petruchio's servant, Grumio. Ryan Hollyman plays servant Biondello as an over-the-top, flamboyant gay man, in a way that would probably be offensive if it were done with maliciousness, but it clearly isn't. There's lots of good chemistry happening among the cast.
Purists may not care for Witzel's modernizing of the play – this iz, like, tha hip MTV-style Shrew, ya know what ahm sayin', yo! – but he makes it work. There are silent dumb-show interludes between scenes that play like music videos, set to familiar pop songs (familiar to some, I'm assuming; they weren't to me). Still, it's hard to ignore the way this updated setting clashes with many of the dated story elements; women in the western world today generally don't require parental permission to marry, and dowries have gone the way of bear-baiting.
High Park's Shrew may have its flaws and contradictions, but it's still far more enjoyable than the same company's and cast's Macbeth. At least you can tell the cast is having lots of fun here, with broad characterizations and quirky non-Shakespearean interjections (“OMG!” or “Hashtag _____”). The use of microphones didn't bother me so much this time – maybe because the actors weren't shouting and over-projecting so much.
My advice: Don't dwell too much on the subtleties or the politics. Don't overthink it. Just sit back and enjoy the performances and the gimmicks, and it's a pleasure to watch.
The Taming of the Shrew runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the High Park Amphitheatre until August 31.
More about Shakespeare, William shakespeare, Theatre, Comedy, shakespeare in high park
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