The males in Shakespeare’s original audience for Taming of the Shrew probably saw Petruchio as a Hercules and Katherine Minola as his 13th labor, far graver than swabbing down the Augean stables or slaying the man-eating mares of Diomedes. At a time when women began to question their fixed place in society — there was even a woman on the throne — most males must have sighed deep relief at the end when Kate, tamed like an erstwhile bucking bronco, tells other wives to put their hand beneath their husbands’ feet and be dutiful.
The males who footed the bill for tickets to the Globe probably roared like pirates when Petruchio tamed “cursed Kate,” the “fiend of hell.” Some among them may have applauded the means: various deprivations from fashion choices to food and sleep. And a majority must have felt that, above all else, order had been restored.
It’s also likely that they didn’t hear bedraggled Grumio describe his master as “a devil” and “mad-brained” and more cursed than Kate (who calls Petruchio a “mad-brain rudesby”). They probably gave these remarks as little heed as people give TV commercials listing the negative side effects of a medication. And when Curtis, one of his servants, says Petruchio is “more shrew than she,” they turned a deaf ear.
Come forward in time and two Petruchios emerge: an icon of male dominance or an abusive, sexist swine. For the Old Globe Theatre, inventive director Ron Daniels negotiates a third possibility. This Petruchio talks the talk, sure: he’ll “wive wealthily in Padua.” But when he walks the walk, he ain’t no colossus.
He’s money mad (“wealth is the burden of my wooing dance”) and regards Kate as an investment, no more human than his house, horse, or ox. Until he sees her. In act 1, Tranio and Lucentio argue about love at first sight. A flower, called “love-in-idleness,” can induce it in fiction, says Lucentio (alluding to A Midsummer Night’s Dream). At the Old Globe, when Petruchio first sees Kate, and she him, time skips a tick; their eyes laser-lock. From this point on, both spin a tad sideways. They perform Shakespeare’s play dutifully, scene for scene, while something like the Real Thing grows on the margin.
It’s almost as if they see and see through each other. And the strategy works, at least until the curtain comes down.
In King Lear, Jonno Roberts makes the Bastard Edmund an assertive, evil, and funny interloper, sharing schemes with the audience as if we, like he, were social outcasts. Roberts gives Petruchio the same forthright assertiveness, but with a difference. Beneath the bluster, this crimson-caped, jut-jawed smiler is a “rudesby.” He stumbles, he bumbles. That the courtiers of Padua believe he’s in control says tons about their sophistication. Roberts seems half-surprised when a strategy succeeds; and his lack of tact throughout suggests not that he’s a seasoned wooer but that he’s never woo’d before.
Neither has Emily Swallow’s Kate. There’s civility and taste in her gorgeous, petticoat-puffed red dress (Deirdre Clancy’s color-rich costumes always a plus) but none in her demeanor. She’s as raw as Petruchio and, until now, had no reason to be otherwise. Although she often over-indicates disbelief with her eyes, Swallow conveys the sense that Kate will go along with the charade, to see if there’s anything behind it.
In the production’s best scene, Petruchio, Kate, and an armada of servants have a dinner from hell. In near slow-motion, things fall apart, and Petruchio, whom Roberts gives a dash of the commedia, becomes more spoiled and shrewish than anything Kate has done. Curtis was right. But why does Kate — mud-caked, dead tired, starving (for food and sexual consummation) — continue the game?
Given Shrew’s inherent misogyny, Roberts and Swallow trod a tricky path. They undercut familiar lines with telling gestures and physicality. It’s almost a play-within-the-play, or opposed stories vying for the spotlight. And it’s always entertaining. But as in the cruel dinner scene, it’s hard at times to think that even love at first sight could overcome Petruchio’s boot-camp tactics.
As he infiltrates the text with a second story, the director sneaks glimpses of today into the period. He has audience members seated onstage (contemporary clothes jarring with late-Renaissance finery) and includes sunglasses and “you the man” fist bumps. The actors come onstage for the preshow and, as in performances at the Globe, they perform a hearty dance after.
Bruce Turk, an annual mainstay of the summer season, plays the Fool in Lear and Grumio in Shrew, and wonderfully well. It’s hard to say which character’s more put upon. Of the strong supporting cast, Donald Carrier’s Hortensio stands out; though Jay Whittaker, terrific as Edgar in Lear, goes hyper-over-the-top as young Lucentio, human jumping-bean. Bree Welch and Shirine Babb, as Bianca and a rich widow, suggest that marriage to these newlyweds will be no honeymoon. ■
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Ron Daniels; cast: Emily Swallow, Bree Welch, Michael Stewart Allen, Charles Janasz, Jay Whittaker, Jonno Roberts, Bruce Turk, Adrian Sparks, Craig Dudley, Joseph Marcell, Donald Carrier, Shirine Babb; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Deirdre Clancy; lighting, Alan Burrett; sound, Christopher R. Walker
Playing through September 23. Runs in repertory with King Lear and The Madness of George III. 619-234-5623.