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The Taming of the Shrew

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 14, 2016

Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo
Photo by Joan Marcus

There's really no escaping Donald Trump this year, is there? As if presidential politics weren't enough, he's now even taking over Central Park—well, sort of. His name is not invoked during Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew, but it's impossible to imagine without his existence. There are two reasons for this: First, because a (talented) vocal impersonator captures his, er, unique speech cadences in a series of voice-overs designed to set the scene; and it's unlikely how this scrambled, proudly unfaithful spin on Shakespeare could exist without someone like Trump to give it what almost but doesn't quite pass for legitimacy.

The unseen, mush-mouthed figure is the announcer (and, it may be assumed, impresario) of the Lombardy Beauty Pageant, ostensibly the Northern Italy equivalent of Miss USA. He introduces us to the contestants, a collection of lovely ladies of all skin colors and body types, clad in various spins on red and gold, as they promenade across the stage and the lip in front of it in the traditionally highly processed yet spiritually vacant style. In a while, we'll see these same women plying talents ranging from baton twirling to tap dancing to singing. But for now, we're supposed to feast with our eyes on the prevailing notion of beauty—because of the Trump focus, it's really only one man's and not the world's, which sort of spoils the conceit from the get-go, but roll with it for now.

Anyway, for some vague reason the contestants conspire to put on their own little Shrew morality play, centering on the pageant's front-runner. She, the reigning queen of this little world, is Bianca (Gayle Rankin), a country-singing would-be actress, who's poised to take the title and win it all. Unfortunately, her father, Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), has decreed that she may not marry until her sister, Katherina, has wed. And when we meet her, as portrayed by the blazing firebrand Cush Jumbo, she lacks all of her sister's grace, style, and willingness to conform with the patriarchy.

Where Bianca has stood up and made a choice to become what others want for her own success, Katherina just doesn't care, and is willing to face (and squash) the wrath of any who want her to be something she doesn't. Two of Bianca's suitors, Gremio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Donna Lynne Champlin), persuade the visiting wealthy-wife-seeker Petruchio (Janet McTeer) to solve Katherina's problem, and thus solve their problem, which ushers in the battle of wits and wills designed to make Petruchio rich and Katherina the kind of woman every man wants.

If you're wondering how Lloyd squares any of this with her blistering critique of the fetishization of femininity as represented by Trump: She doesn't. That's the chief issue with this otherwise professionally rendered production, which goes to extravagant lengths to remind us how embarrassed it is of The Taming of the Shrew, starting with the frame that recasts it as male domination fantasy. Incoherently adopted and executed (a haphazard replacement for the Christopher Sly opening that's vexed directors for centuries?), it doesn't accomplish much besides rote apology, and only further confuses a concept that seems to have been implemented to diminish, rather than heighten, the original work.

the full company
Photo by Joan Marcus

That's true of much here. There are the troublesome interpolations, which have been sneaking more and more into Public Theater Shakespeare in recent years (Bianca rehearses a Scarlett O'Hara speech at one point). Then there are wholesale deviations from the text; at a few points, including once for several consecutive minutes, Gold delivers chunks of a gender-themed stand-up routine that don't pretend to connect to Shakespeare's plot more than Lloyd's. Worst, though, is that Lloyd hasn't seriously attempted to make sense of the play's underlying contradiction, in 2016 at any rate: Is Katherina's transformation a positive, a negative, or somewhere in between? You can intuit Lloyd's opinion from the complete muddle she makes of the frame-busting conclusion, which, combined with Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis's condemnatory Playbill note, does not paint a picture of even basic respect for The Taming of the Shrew as a piece of writing. But just in its bare presentation, particularly given Jumbo's portrayal, the whole thing is nonsensical.

Jumbo is spectacular at doing what she's been asked: She captures a youthful, irreverent, feisty, and fiercely sexual Katherina the likes of which I've never seen before, and she makes a fine contrast to McTeer's hypermasculine, hyperinvested redneck-biker Petruchio. But Jumbo does not invest her portrayal with any dark spark that hints at more satisfying depths beneath Katherina's exterior. She is nothing more, and nothing less, than a young girl (Jumbo's Katherina reads 20, tops) having fun, not one who's permanently ideologically anchored to being individualistic. You don't get the necessary sense, then, that there's anything for Petruchio to conquer; and, no matter how close he gets to winning, nothing elemental about Katherina gets lost.

If you don't believe that Katherina is becoming lesser as a result of her exposure to Petruchio, is her shedding her immature affectations in favor of discovering her real self not a net positive? Lloyd doesn't want us to think that—the ending confirms this—so what are we supposed to think? There's no way to know. Some directors (and the famed musical version, Kiss Me, Kate) introduce ambiguity by suggesting that woman tames man as much as man tames woman, and that their union is, ultimately, an agreement of disagreement that benefits them both. Lloyd doesn't even do that. She apparently wants the play without the baggage, which predictably results in catastrophe: The baggage is the play.

At least Lloyd has a terrific acting troupe helping her—I could have done without most of Gold's shtick, but she spouts it well, and Champlin is a delightfully comedic Hortensio, Jackson a world-wise Baptista, Rosa Gilmore a compelling Lucentio (another, more successful, wooer of Bianca), and Candy Buckley an oddly dynamic Vincentio. The sets and costumes (by Mark Thompson) invoking a Southern traveling carnival, Robert Wierzel's outdoor-party lighting, and Sam Davis's bouncy original music and Mark Menard's lively sound design promote a festive summer atmosphere that prevents any of this from getting tiring.

Ultimately, alas, not much of that matters. Lloyd's crowning achievement here is unquestionably getting this big group of gifted, charismatic actresses to come together in the Park and tell this story, and it's certainly a joy to watch them. But because Lloyd's spin is so sloppy and incomprehensible, in the way it repudiates Shakespeare but replaces him with nothing, the many fine women in the company become almost props in an act that claims to elevate them but instead causes them to shrink before our eyes. In the end, Lloyd's version of celebrating some of today's greatest acting talents becomes about exploitative as Donald Trump's, which strikes me as, among other things, a huge miscalculation.

The Taming of the Shrew
Through June 26
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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