WRESTLING WITH ISSUES The Taming of the Shrew pits man against woman.
It takes someone willful to knowingly court and mount a show so contentious, to modern eyes, as The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s comedy is a tough one for today’s audiences — hinging as it does on a brutal campaign of female domestication. But Sally Wood has taken on this hellion at the Theater at Monmouth, where she makes colorful entertainment of its wit and innuendo and gives its skirmishes great kinetic grit, without making its fundamental story much more palatable.
The director’s notes relate that in this production of Taming, Wood angles at the idea that this is a “real love story . . . between two misfits.” A fair enough approach; love or something like it sure does happen, after all, between really screwed-up people. These two are Kate (Ambien Mitchell), the famed “shrew,” and Petruchio (Josh Carpenter), a wild man from away looking to wed wealth, both of whom have what we might now term social disorders. While a complicated (and deftly acted) subplot of disguises gets the “normal” youngsters wed — Lucentio (Luke Couzens) woos Kate’s younger sister Bianca (sensuous Aislinn Kerchaert, neither too holy nor too indignant at her sister) by proxy of his servant Tranio (Alexander Harvey) — the two “misfits” go at it with brute force.
In the wealthy Baptista household (Dan Bilodeau’s fine high windows, snooker table, and tones of wine, dark wood, and ochre), Kate often angrily collects laundry, looking like a scullery maid in her loose pants — a role she takes, perhaps, to separate herself from a social world where she feels graceless. Mitchell’s Kate looks insecure and wary whenever she lashes out against her father Baptista (Mark S. Cartier), her sister, or Bianca’s two aging suitors, Bill Van Horn’s Gremio and James Noel Hoban’s Hortensio. She acts on the defensive, responding to goading or simple statements of the truth: her reputation makes her unlikely ever to wed. That reputation doesn’t seem earned; in fact, she seems like an oft-kicked dog — anxious, awkward, with a fury born of confused hurt — whenever she hears anew of her notoriety.
Kate doesn’t take much pleasure in inflicting violence, but Petruchio seems a bit of the sadist. Carpenter gives him a fierce, gleefully erratic light in his eye, and it flashes all over the place whenever he baits and threatened his long-suffering servant, Mike Anthony’s wonderfully laconic Grumio. He’s a live wire at the Baptista house, where everyone marvels and shakes their heads at his headstrong stunts and will to woo Kate. Petruchio’s antisocial behavior is the opposite of Kate’s — he’s a manic narcissist, but he’s also charismatic and a lot of fun. People like him even as they stare and move away.
So their meeting puts socially awkward Kate at even more of a disadvantage, a power dynamic Wood amplifies in their first scene: Petruchio enters to see Kate, thinking herself alone, shyly trying on a corset from the laundry. The scene makes palpable Kate’s repressed yearnings, and gives her a humanizing weakness in a way that never quite happens with Petruchio. Such an explicitly sympathetic Kate makes his reverse-psychology wooing and early-marriage deprivations (i.e., food, bed, and clothing are none good enough for her, so she spends days hungry, sleepless, and ragged) seem more like cruelty than a clever ruse to trick a foil of equal powers and intransigence.