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The Taming of the Shrew

Two Outcasts Cast Their Lots With Each Other

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Saturday, July 8, 2023, C–6 (stalls center)
Directed by Josê Zayas

Petruchio in striped shirt and torn pants holds Katherina's left hand with both of his. He's shouting, she, in hooded sweater and sweat pants, is looking dumbfounded. Behind them, Baptista in a suit has his hands raised, to the right Tranio in panama hat and jacket has her arms outstretched, and to the left Gremeo is leaning on his cane.
Holding her hand, Petruchio (Aidan O'Reilly) "wins" a confounded Katherina (Jess Kadish) as her father, Baptista (Jack Young) cheers and Tranio (Erica Cruz Hernández, right) disguised as Lucentio and Gremio (Alexis Baigue, left) look on in the American Shakespeare Center's production of WIlliam Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Photo by October Grace Media.

It is my long-stated opinion that William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has always been and is still a love story (click here for my Commentary on that topic). Now, here is a production that fully plays it that way, but with advantages. That’s thanks to director José Zayas and his two lead actors who turn textual nuggets into a viable, relatable story arc for Katherina and Petruchio.

This was Zayas’s winning formula in his Blackfriars Playhouse staging of Romeo and Juliet last year for the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. His modern-costumed take on that play delved into the psychosis of teen-age love and the community dynamics that led to the play’s tragic ending. Under Zayas’s direction, Meg Rodgers and Brandon Carter carefully mined Shakespeare’s script to create, respectively, a Juliet and Romeo who were so authentically human we could see our own psychosis in their performances. It was one of the most profoundly powerful productions of the play I’ve seen.

This year, Zayas returned to the Blackfriars to take on The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s knock-about (literally) early comedy, possibly his first composition. Given Zayas's results with Romeo and Juliet, I was curious to see how he would approach Shrew: What deep psychological and sociological angles he might find there, and what dark consequences might emerge?

Answer: he did exactly as he did with Romeo and Juliet—he let Shakespeare's script do all the work. We thus get a slapstick comedy, a production respectfully abiding by its commedia dell'arte foundation with a lot of silly people creating absurd situations. It's a hoot of a 2½-hour passage of over-the-top performances. though some are delightfully nuanced, such as Carter’s embodiment of a prissily precise Hortensio, Rodgers playing Petruchio's servant, Grumio, with simple innocence and enchanting charm, and Nic Sanchez imbuing his over-doting Lucentio, smitten with Katherina's younger sister, Bianca (Corrie Green), with naive sweetness.

All of this comic madness rotates around two damaged people who find their soul mates in the mirror images of each other. While this production offers nothing dark or devastating or even powerful, we do find something profound in the play’s core love story as revealed by Zayas and his two leads. Aidan O’Reilly as Petruchio and Jess Kadish as Katherina give genuine credibility to their characters’ instant and constantly evolving affections while engaging in psychological gamesmanship through their combative courtship. Their performances lift Petruchio and Katherina to the realm of other Shakespeare couples—Benedick and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, Orlando and Rosalind, and two of the four couples in A Midsummer Night's Dream— who find the course of true love never running smooth; "true love" being the operative phrase.

Since coming back from the Covid pandemic and subsequent upheaval in the company, the American Shakespeare Center under Carter, who was named artistic director in January 2022, has been recruiting previous resident artists for its repertoire companies. This is partly a marketing ploy. Those actors who spent years with the company are beloved among long-time Blackfriars audiences, fans who can list legendary roles and verses like Swifties referencing favorite Taylor Swift song lyrics. These past residents also bring to the company their valuable and singular Blackfriars Playhouse experience. The American Shakespeare Center’s playhouse is the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater and features audience proximity and interaction (including “gallant stools” on the stage), universal lighting (houselights remain on throughout the performance), and no technological effects (even rock-out numbers like Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” in Shrew’s pre-show set are played unplugged). In such an environment have scholars and practitioners discovered the dynamics of Shakespeare’s own staging conditions, such as the improvisational nature of the scripts despite their iambic pentameter structure. Blackfriars-experienced actors capitalize on these conditions to create one-time “only at Blackfriars" moments.

O’Reilly is this company’s alumni member, boasting 41 roles in 22 Blackfriars productions, including notable turns as Clarence in Richard III, Jacques in As You Like It, Trinculo in The Tempest, and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. In All's Well, the entire production relied on his bliss-imbued take on the line “The last was the greatest” referencing a tryst with a one-night fling he didn't know was his wife. That O’Reilly could make such a jerk as Bertram believable schooled him well for Petruchio.

As dynamic a performance as O’Reilly gives in Shrew, though, it is Kadish’s Katherina who provides the key to this Petruchio’s character arc. Making her Blackfriars debut, Kadish, who comes out of the Chicago theater scene, avoids the Katherina tropes I usually see, such as playing her as a rabid wildcat or a victim. Rather, this Katherina is an intelligent, self-sufficient woman—a prototype for so many of Shakespeare’s female characters. She is stuck in a family and society that doesn’t appreciate such qualities in a woman and is particularly galled that Bianca is Padua’s ideal of womanhood. Kadish’s Katherina instantly respects Petruchio's intelligence and comes to understand his self-perception as a social outcast. She sees the game he’s playing but fights it with her own game and almost gives up until she realizes Petruchio is offering her a more viable course to triumphing over Padua's patriarchal oppression: to become his playing partner, not his opponent.

O’Reilly does something with his Petruchio I don’t ever recall seeing before: he explores the character’s true motivation for being in Padua. It’s easy to see a straight line for Petruchio from his first scene beating Grumio at Hortensio’s gate and announcing he wants to "wive and thrive" to his crowing win of the wager in the play’s final scene. O’Reilly, though, steps off this track in the manner in which he tells Hortensio why he’s come to Padua:

Such wind as scatters young men through the world
To seek their fortunes farther than at home,
Where small experience grows. But in a few,
Signor Hortensio, thus it stands with me:
Antonio my father is deceased,
And I have thrust myself into this maze,
Haply to wive and thrive as best I may.

O’Reilly starts this passage by shifting down into a pensive attitude, and he pauses at the colon before announcing his father’s death. O'Reilly using a tone derived from both the words and structure of the verse, we see a Petruchio who is still grieving his father’s death. With some trepidation (“thrust myself into this maze”) and acknowledging his sheltered upbringing, he’s not only looking to gain experience and “thrive,” he’s also seeking family companionship. This passage explains why Petruchio's first stop in Padua is visiting Hortensio, who describes Petruchio as his “good friend” and Grumio as his “old friend.”

This forms the foundation O’Reilly uses for his Petruchio's character arc, not as a bipolar misogynist but as an outsider in a Padua that smothers individuality in its patriarchal attitudes and obsession with wealth. In this play's dowry bargaining, Petruchio is peremptory in settling with Baptista (a perpetually baffled Jack Young) for Katherine's marriage. Compare that with the itemized bidding war for Bianca we see between Gremio (Alexis Baigue playing a classic, bent-over, cane-weilding, blue-bearded Pantolone without the mask) and Tranio (a Goodfellas-antic Erica Cruz Hernández) disguised as his master, Lucentio. For his wedding to Katherina, Petruchio wears a glittering green, shoulder-strapped ball gown and carries a white lace parasol. This is an “eyesore” to Baptista, but Kadish's Katherina seems to appreciate the act. After all, she’s wearing a green jacket-and-pants suit with white bare-midriff tee-top and green pumps. That Katherina is in pants and Petruchio is in a dress for their wedding may be an ironic gender-mixing visual, but more telling is that pantsuit and ball gown are color-matched (costume design by Kristina Sneshkoff).

One of the play’s riddles is determining when Petruchio falls in love with Katherina and she with him—if she ever does. I’ve seen Petruchio grow enamored as early as the line, “Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench; I love her ten times more than e’er I did,” that he speaks upon report of her latest violent act minutes before he even meets her. O'Reilly takes a unique approach to the “ten times more” line, seeming to mock all the talk he’s hearing about this “intolerable curst” woman. Most productions I’ve seen slip in a love-at-first-sight pause when Petruchio and Katherina first lay eyes on each other, though no stage direction or textual hints suggest that. O'Reilly and Kadish both pause when they meet, and they both are at least impressed. O'Reilly, with long straggly hair and dressed in leather jacket and ripped jeans, has a rugged handsomeness notably lacking in Padua. Katherina's look is sweatpants casual, which suits homebody Petruchio just fine.

Pointedly, where the two connect is not at first sight but at first sentences. He greets her as a polite gentleman would with “Good morrow, Kate, for that’s your name, I hear.” She doesn’t like being called Kate, but instead of merely saying this, she tries to wind him up in her punning wit:.“Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing," she replies: "They call me Katherina that do talk of me.” Impressed, O’Reilly’s Petruchio counters with the fact that he’s not heard anyone talk of her as “Katherina.” “You lie, in faith," he says, "for you are called plain Kate, and bonny Kate, and sometimes ‘Kate the Curst.’” He immediately moves to his praise of her as “the prettiest Kate in Christendom” and laces this with satirical fancies of how her “mildness [is] praised in every town.” Now Kadish's Katherina is impressed, and she gamely ramps up the wit war with him, determined to put him down and out.

Katherine sits on a banquet table, one foot on the table top, the other hanging down to the floor. The rest of the guests sit on chairs from one end to the other behind the table.
Katherina (Jess Kadish, center) gives her "what duty women owe their husbands" speech at the end of the American Shakespeare Center's production of WIlliam Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Listening are, from left, Bianca (Corrie Green), Baptista (Jack Young), Hortensio (Brandon Carter), Lucentio (Nic Sanchez), Vincentio (Joe Mucciolo), Tranio (Erica Cruz Hernández) and the Widow (Angela Iannone). Photo by October Grace Media.

This wooing scene is brilliantly played, in the clarity of their pun-filled lines (even if we don't get the jokes, we get that they get them), in their physical and verbal choreography, and in the subtleness of their characters’ regard for each other, Petruchio with witty earnestness, Katherina with intrigued defensiveness. Capping off the scene is an important bit of stage business suggested by the exact point in the text where Baptista and the others re-enter. Petruchio has told Katherina that “I am a husband for your turn,” and because of how much he likes her, “Thou must be married to no man but me.” Enter Baptista et al. Petruchio seeing them immediately turns macho toward Katherina: “For I am born to tame you, Kate, and bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate conformable as other household Kates.” He’s playing to the others, and though this angers her, a few lines later she picks up on Petruchio telling Baptista, “If she be curst, it is for policy” as he describes their private conversation; which is true, though he otherwise exaggerates how she has been the kindest Kate.

This establishes the tone for their interactions throughout the rest of the play. He is playing a role that is a mockery of the subservience Katherina demands of others (though we get the impression O'Reilly's Petruchio is making it up as he goes). Meanwhile, he's trying to get through her headstrong ways to impress on her that she needs to trust him. She gets so exasperated at his manic behavior that she finally gives in when he demands the sun is the moon and vice versa according to what he says. The way O'Reilly plays this interchange exposes the absurdity of it all, and it's a lightbulb moment for Kadish's Katherina. When encountering Vincentio (Joe Mucciolo) and Petruchio starts his “gentle mistress” gag on him, Kadish’s Katherina smiles, ready to play along. Why? Perhaps for no other reason than she has begun appreciating Petruchio’s sense of humor in both wordplay and play-acting. It also is the moment a mutual respect takes hold, forming a true partnership.

Able to read each other so well and see through each other’s public façade to their true beings achieves their mutual victory in the wager scene. It’s not just Petruchio crowing—indeed, when Petruchio boasts about “right supremacy,” O'Reilly clutches his heart, that being where right supremacy reins. It’s also Katherina triumphing as she turns her famous closing speech on what duty women owe their husbands into a verbal beatdown of Bianca and the Widow while stressing that the husband must have an honest will. Katherina has triumphed over her bratty little sister and silenced all the men of Padua with her personality and strength intact. And the way Kate kisses Petruchio suggests she has found true love in a man with an honest will.

Eric Minton
July 23, 2023

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