THEATER | "The Taming of the Shrew," against all odds, gets a near-perfect production thanks to Theatre Pro Rata

Photo courtesy Theatre Pro Rata

Theatre Pro Rata just did something I thought was impossible.

They put on a good production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. A really good production.

Given Pro Rata’s track record, I guess this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me. When you’ve got Carin Bratlie as the director, and Amber Bjork and Grant Henderson as Kate and Petruchio, the odds are in your favor. But the script for Taming of the Shrew is, you’ll pardon the expression, a real bitch. It’s been done so badly, so many times over the years that I was seriously beginning to believe that it was unstageable for a modern audience. The gender politics involved in Shrew tend to make the thing sink like a stone every single time. Leave it to Bratlie and her crew to remember the most important thing about Shrew: it’s a comedy.

Shrew is tailor-made to get the Theatre Pro Rata treatment, because Pro Rata is known for digging into the meat of a script, sometimes down to the subatomic level. And if ever a script needed to be reexamined from top to bottom, it’s Shrew. Everyone knows the hilarious, and naughty, scene where Kate and Petruchio first meet and begin their unusual courtship. But most productions treat the story as if it’s the tale of a headstrong woman being broken in like a horse or a dog until her very spirit is crushed and her personality unrecognizable. Wow, sign me up to see more of that. Not. Like most bad productions of Shakespeare, other theater companies will just focus on the material they like, or focus on making sure this scene works or that scene works, and not pay attention to whether the thing works together as a whole. But that’s not the way Theatre Pro Rata works. Each plot and subplot, each scene, each character, each line is finessed until the whole production is running like a well-oiled machine. It’s actually hard to review a production this solid, because there’s simply nothing wrong with it. It’s tough to know where to grab onto the thing in order to talk about how good it is.

the taming of the shrew, presented at gremlin theatre through september 26. for tickets ($14-$41, sliding scale) and information, see theatreprorata.org

Purists would no doubt rail against the fact that the production is set in 2010, and not the distant past, and that a number of key supporting roles are played by women rather than men (as they were originally written). But when the production is this good, and this true to the spirit of the play, I say screw the sanctity of the original script (and this is coming from a playwright, remember). Kit Gordon, the dramaturg for the production, in a pre-show chat boldly declared that if Shakespeare were to see their production, he would be pleased. After seeing it myself, I have to agree with her.

Let’s start with the plot. It’s actually two plots (which, in blocking out from my mind the many, varied bad productions of Shrew I’ve had to sit through over the years, I’d forgotten). Shrew is about the complicated wooing of two very different sisters, the daughters of Baptista (Muriel Bonertz). Everybody wants to court the pretty young Bianca (MaryLynn Mennicke). But Baptista insists that older sister Kate (Bjork) be wooed and married first before she’ll allow anyone access to her younger daughter. Kate is less than thrilled with being used as a bargaining chip in her little sister’s romantic drama. One of Bianca’s admirers, Lucentio (Ryan Henderson), entreats his pal Petruchio (Grant Henderson) to take on Kate to help clear the way for Lucentio’s pursuit of Bianca. Since Kate is both rich and sexy, if a little stubborn, Petruchio is more than happy to accept the challenge.

Meanwhile, Bianca’s suitors decide to take advantage of the fact that Baptista is looking for tutors for her daughter. Hortensio (Adam Qualls) disguises himself as a tutor, while Gremio (H. Wesley McClain) hires a tutor to offer up as a gift. Gremio isn’t aware that this tutor is actually Petruchio’s buddy Lucentio in disguise. As Lucentio makes progress with Bianca, his servant Tranio (David Beukema) holds his master’s place in society by pretending to be Lucentio. Tranio moves to get consent from Baptista for Bianca’s hand in marriage, on behalf of his master, and using a traveling Pedant in disguise (Craig Johnson) pretending to be his master’s mother Vincentio for added status. This plan works well, until the real Vincentio (Delta Giordano) comes for a visit. Needless to say, romantic comedy hijinks ensue.

The set, by William G. Wallace, is the height of simplicity: a black void with large white paper banners hanging floor to ceiling. These paper banners get names of people and places, and the occasional doorknob, painted on them, as well as having razors taken to them to open up doors and windows. The paper also gets repeatedly yanked down and ripped apart, the debris strewn all over the stage in piles that—like all the random bits that appear (red confetti, etc.)—get left where they lie. The accumulation throughout the play creates a new world order, culminating in a big wedding party that also gets thoroughly trashed.

Speaking of weddings, Mandi Johnson outdid herself with the costume design. Kate’s outfits are all a knockout, including the wedding dress she finds herself imprisoned in for much of the production. Not to be outdone, Petruchio’s wedding attire...uh, must be seen to be believed. Suffice it to say there are stockings and high heels involved. While on the subject of drag, Craig Johnson as the Pedant must be having the time of his life. Johnson’s deliberately flat, emotionless mode of speech becomes increasingly hilarious, but when he dons his matronly outfit to pretend to be Lucentio’s mother, he threatens to steal the show.

Segueing for a moment from men in drag to men of questionable sexual preference, the treatment of one of Bianca's suitors Gremio (McClain) kept nagging at me all night. Gremio is older than Bianca's other suitors, and much is made of that in the text. However the production seems (you'll pardon the expression) bent on portraying Gremio as a flaming homosexual. I suppose men in denial need a wife to be their beard at any age—and laughing at a closet case who clearly isn't fooling anyone is just as acceptable an object of jest as laughing at a man pursuing a woman several decades his junior. But the line between laughing at him because he's deluded, and laughing at him just because he's gay, is a fuzzy one. I'm not sure why they felt they needed the extra layer of sexuality, since there was no way for the production to make it pay off at the end. However, since the play is often a misogynist's wet dream, I guess a little borderline homophobia isn't that far out of bounds.

A special nod has to go to Katharine Horowitz’s sound design because without it, we wouldn’t be sure what world the characters are living in. The costumes are modern, but in many ways timeless, and the set provides little in the way of cues to the year. Obviously Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter throws us back in time, but Horowitz provides countless little aural reminders that stick in our brains and ground us in the present. Not just car engines, but people’s keys activating car alarms, or remote controls instantly starting a fire with an offstage “whoosh.” Those simple touches, in concert with the funky modern-day music cues, keep the audience squarely planted in the present.

One really can’t say enough good things about the ensemble of actors here. The consistency of character from moment to moment, from the leads right down to the people playing multiple roles as servants and the like, is fantastic. The audience always feels as though they are in the hands of storytellers who know what they’re doing. One never feels like the words are ever just being recited. Everyone knows what they’re saying and why, and it continues to drive the plot forward. Theatre Pro Rata’s penchant for reveling in the language of their chosen playwright pays off in a big way here, since you couldn’t ask for a better manipulator of the English language than Mr. Shakespeare.

Just as they did with The Spanish Tragedy, Theatre Pro Rata creates a more interesting canvas by inventing about a half dozen extra female roles in Shrew that didn’t technically exist before. The male heads of the families in Shakespeare’s play become matriarchs instead (Bonertz and Giordano). This makes Kate’s rebellion and flouting of their authority much more intriguing than it might otherwise have been. The fact that Petruchio’s sidekick and head servant Grumio is played by Anissa Brazill Gooch makes for an unusual dynamic both pre- and post-Kate. Tranio gets to play master to his fellow servant Biondello (Katie Willer). And when Grumio (Gooch) goes toe-to-toe with fellow underling Curtis (Claire Hayner), or Petruchio with the tailor (also Hayner) of Kate’s new outfit, it’s a much more engaging mix of characters because it means Kate isn’t the only woman in Petruchio’s world. She may not have allies in the gender war by default, but we feel a little less like the whole patriarchal society is lined up against her with no hope in sight. Plus, since Hayner does multi-role duty yet again as the Widow who pairs off with Hortensio in the closing scenes, her ever-changing presence is felt across much of the play, in yet another sector of this society, in roles both traditionally male and female.

Amber Bjork is Theatre Pro Rata’s go-to actor for strong (and challenging) female roles - the bloodthirsty angel in Marisol and the vengeful object of desire Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy being only the two most recent examples. Her Kate makes the most sense, from start to finish, of any Kate I’ve seen. That, at least in part, has to also do with her acting partner, Grant Henderson as Petruchio. He’s wowed me in smaller (but significant) roles for Pro Rata before (also a memorable part of their Marisol and Spanish Tragedy ensembles). It’s great to see him get a chance to tear into a leading role at long last, particularly in Shakespeare. Henderson is one of the smartest (and funniest) actors I know. He’s no clown. The laughs he gets are earned through character and situation, and he (like Bjork) lives inside the part. Though he doesn’t upstage his fellow actors, you can watch him at any moment in the play and know what Petruchio is thinking. The guy is always on. He’s not waiting for his next line, he’s moving within the world of the story.

Shrew succeeds or fails based on how the audience feels about this central couple. It’s a tricky alchemy that director Bratlie works with Bjork and Henderson to get just right. If Kate seems like an unrelenting bitch, we don’t care. If Petruchio seems like an abusive jerk, we don’t care. If either one of them is playing the other, or condescending to the other, we don’t care. It needs to be a marriage of equals. The society gives the man the upper hand in forcing the issue of marriage, but from there it’s anybody’s game. Henderson gives one the feeling that Petruchio is using tactics not to break Kate down, but to find a way to break through, and have Kate see him for what he truly is, her ally. Bjork’s Kate never breaks the way Kate does in lesser productions. She may be hungry and exhausted, but she never loses the steel in her spine. She plays along to get what she wants, or needs, and in the process realizes that she’s found a partner in crime, and kindred spirit, in Petruchio. That final stunt they pull at the wedding party isn’t an example of how Kate has been beaten into submission, it’s an indication of what a great team the two of them have become. And here’s the key thing: all this works in the concept of the script as written. They don’t have to torture the text into a twisted mess—punching up some things and ignoring others—to get the concept to work, and to get it all to work as comedy. By not layering on any outside agendas, but just embracing Shrew as written, Theatre Pro Rata creates a production that seems almost effortless in its delivery.

Like I said, I thought it was impossible. But Theatre Pro Rata did it. Again. Very highly recommended.

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.

Matthew A. Everett's picture
Matthew A. Everett

Matthew A. Everett is the playwright in residence for Workhouse Theatre Company, helping with their new play development program The Greenhouse Project and its monthly play reading series the second Monday of every month. (Accepting submissions 9/15 to 12/15/14 here) Upcoming Readings - 12/8/14 -Deborah Yarchun's play Portmanteaux ; 1/12/15 - Eric Appleton's Ghostbears!; 2/9/15 - Deborah Yarchun's play Bomber's Moon; 3/9/15 - Deborah Yarchun's play Great White; 4/13/15 - Emily Conbere's The Massive Annual Party Play; 5/11/15 - Matt Weerts' Katonians; 6/8/15 - TBA.