WARRING GENDERS Who's taming whom?
Through the rest of June, a classic battle of the sexes will be waged at the wading pool of Deering Oaks Park. The Fenix Theatre Co., Portland's premier purveyor of outdoor Shakespeare for the summer, stages a smart, wet, and aggressive Taming of the Shrew as its first summer show. And it heightens the strife with some twists: To Bryant D. Mason's leather-jacketed Petruchio, Katherina is played by a rugged, sullen Robert Cameron, who's got some powerful thighs in his shapeless white shift.
Such gender-bent casting wouldn't be anything new in Shakespeare's day. But director Sally Wood's production makes another unusual decision: Cameron's Kate is actually the Cinderella victim of the story, the awkward, unattractive sister who has all her life been shat upon by the pretty, popular, spoiled sister, Bianca (Tess Van Horn, with luscious bitchery), who gets all the dates (Peter Brown and David Butler are a treat as her scheming suitors) and the doting of their mom (the elegant Karen Ball; in a departure that leads to some fun textual innuendo, it is a mother, not a father, who negotiates for the girls' hands). Kate would love to have love, but life has given her no reason to expect anything other than derision and cruelty. Cameron plays this out beautifully, particularly in the rare moments when Kate softens to what only appears to be real affection.
Wood's all-star cast, simply but richly clad in black and wine, ranges over a stage area that extends well beyond the pool, into the audience's slope and up over the opposite knoll; the depth of field of the players' tableaux is often as artful as an Orson Welles frame. The battles that rage here are equally artful. Sturdy Mason and Cameron have all kinds of fun with staged backhands, wrestling holds, head butts, and great threatening use of Kate's wet laundry.
Petruchio's psychological warfare against Kate — i.e., the "taming" — is of course a pretty contentious matter among modern audiences. In this production, given Kate's abused persona, how Petruchio fucks with her head comes across as particularly dark. It led me to hope for a zingy reversal in their power relations, but her taming seems to be treated here as genuine, and her final monologue about women's duties to their husbands is delivered without discernable irony. To my mind this renders the ending even more disturbing than usual, given the production's sympathetic treatment of Kate. But either way, whether darker or with more of a feminist wink, I'd have been interested to see the production take a stronger stance on what's most thematically difficult about the text: who wins the battle, and why.
But that's probably to over-intellectualize it. More importantly, it's summertime. The Fenix Theatre Co. offers first-rate al fresco entertainment — Bardic verbal sparring and wet men scrapping — and afterwards, you can wrestle out your own spousal battles right there in the grass.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TAMING OF THE SHREW |by William Shakespeare | Directed by Sally Wood | Produced by the Fenix Theatre Co., at the wading pool of Deering Oaks Park, through June 27 | Free | www.fenixtheatre.org