If the tables are turned, can the tamer be tamed?
There's a companion piece to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which Arizona Repertory Theatre opened a couple of weeks ago. That's a good thing, because Shrew, with its chauvinistic overtones, is a tough pill to swallow.
So last week, ART launched The Tamer Tamed, John Fletcher's sequel to Shrew. The two are running in repertory through March 28.
Director Brent Gibbs and his talented team of players and designers have taken Fletcher's play and infused it with rip-roaring energy, some super-clever staging and wonderfully executed comic business. There are even a couple of well-put-together vocal numbers.
Fletcher was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and The Tamer Tamed was undeniably written in response to Shrew, probably about 20 years after Shakespeare's work. Most would agree that Fletcher is an inferior wordsmith, and it's highly doubtful that he was attempting to be a serious early advocate of women's rights. More likely, he was simply a working playwright of the period who saw an opportunity and took it.
In Shrew, of course, Petruchio (Jeremy Selim) bets he can tame the wild Katharina (Chelsea Bowdren), and through humiliation and downright abusive manipulation, he seems to win the bet. It's problematic for modern audiences, and it definitely gets in the way of embracing ART's go at it, although the production is generally a fine one. (See "Quirks of Comedy," Performing Arts, March 4.)
In the last decade or so, it's been popular to produce the two plays together, in repertory, a clear acknowledgment that Shrew alone is hard to take. The Tamer Tamed offers balance, as the tables are turned on Petruchio, and women get their moment.
The Tamer Tamed takes place after Kate's death. In a delightfully inventive opening sequence, during which Death, quite literally, is knocking at the door, Gibbs and company catch us up on the last 10 or so years. It seems that Kate's taming didn't quite take, and she and Petruchio have had a rather tempestuous relationship. Although she tries, Kate can't escape the Grim Reaper, so she is carted off to be buried. Then, after what is arguably the shortest courtship ever, Petruchio marries blonde bombshell Maria (Jocelyn Pickett.)
But the post-wedding bliss evaporates quickly, for while the wedding revelers are still making merry, Maria determines that she will not be a victim of Petruchio's much-heralded chauvinism. She declares that she will not bed him until he bows to her demands for respect. She incites her sisters to follow suit, withholding sex until they get what they deserve from their husbands.
So the line is drawn. In what might be a wink at the eclectic barricade in Les Miserables, the men construct a silly and useless barrier dividing the town into he's and she's. They arm themselves with guns; the women, with sisterhood. Strength in numbers is something Kate never had; now, even Kate's sister, Bianca (Amy Shuttleworth), who seemed quite the shrieking bubble-brain in Shrew, has become a hard-line agitator in this conflict (as well as something of a grifter, in a moderately amusing subplot.)
Of course, Petruchio is incensed and challenges the insurgency in ways that make him look ineffectual and foolish. When the feisty females break loose with a hilarious pan-banging, broom-wielding, Stomp-inspired dance, they pretty much bring down the house.
There's a big difference between taking action to claim the respect you're due, and breaking another's spirit for sport. That's what makes this shoe-on-the-other-foot frolic much more palatable than Shrew and its mean-spirited tendencies.
Many of the actors appear in both pieces, and most perform admirably—but one central piece of casting is hugely problematic and works against the impact of both stories.
Selim is a very good actor. That is quite obvious. But he's an odd choice for Petruchio. He embodies little of Petruchio's charm, much less charisma, which results in a Petruchio neither lovable nor laughable enough for us to feel for him. It's hard to hate him when he's doing the taming, and it's hard to sympathize with him when the tables are turned—and that's critical in our attachment to what's happening. It may have been a considered choice to underplay the grand character that Petruchio is, because it makes his big male ego easier to tolerate. But the result is that he—and the whole story—is sanitized. We don't invest in the tale, even if we find plenty to laugh at.
The real appeal of these two productions lies in Gibbs' creative approach and the broad humor that he and his troupe discover relentlessly. In giving us The Tamer Tamed, ART has admirably recognized the need for a counterweight to Shrew and delivers an entertaining romp where women have power—and don't exercise it injudiciously.