Friday, June 17, 2016

The Trumping Of The Shrew

Young girl, get out of my mind.

Ever wonder what women will have to put up in a world run by Donald Trump? Look no further than Shakespeare In the Park's current all-female production of Taming Of The Shrew, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which is just as over-the-top, and almost as incoherent, as the man it's satirizing.

Framed by a beauty pageant whose voiceover announcer is modeled on a New Yorker whose name rhymes with The Ronald, and containing a character (Gremio) who’s a cross between Trump and Sinatra, with a Vegas Rat Pack attitude towards dames, this production has a ton of energy and a RV full of great ideas, but because it panders by going for easy laughs instead of the jugular, it’s like a complacent liberal: it thinks it’s a lot sharper than it really is in exposing misogyny. If the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom, we should be getting a lot more wisdom than we do by the time that raucous curtain call starts. Instead, we just get patted on the back for being smart. 

But fun? God yes. The play’s been trimmed down to two hours with no intermission, and you don’t miss a thing. (Although what I got was a renewed impatience with the whole Bianca subplot. It felt like there was a lot less of Petruchio and Kate in this play.) Instead of the Christopher Sly Induction, we get the beauty pageant, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about Bianca and Katherina right from the start. The Latin lesson between Lucentio and Bianca is replaced with an extended quote from Gone With The Wind. Gremio’s report of the wedding is done totally meta—he comes out with a copy of Shrew in hand to tell us what he’s supposed to say, and then goes off on a sexist rant. The curtain call dance is done to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” and in a brilliant touch, it includes elements of the Maori Hata war dance. And towering above it all is Janet McTeer’s Petruchio, a lanky cross between a totally pissed Peter O’Toole and a totally entitled rock and roll bad boy, whose every move and line is just magic. If some of this production comes across as a raucous shit-show, it’s McTeer who is the shit and the show. If the rest of this production was as good as her performance, this would be one of those Park plays people talk about for years.

But it’s not. Cush Jumbo’s Katherina is a study in exuberant overkill, but her final monologue—which should be the coup de grace of the play—totally misses its target because you don’t know what it’s aiming at. She delivers it simply and honestly, with no spin or subtext, and for the first time all evening, you wonder just what is going on with this woman who has been so vocal and forthright about what she feels and believes. Is it a pose? Is it sincere?  

And then you realize that you’ve been asking the same question about a lot of things in this production: “What is this supposed to be?” Like the set. It looks like a traveling carnival, but it also seems to be a trailer park. It’s specific enough so that it should be one thing, and thematically represent something meaningful; but it doesn’t. Or like the fact that, when they get married, husbands get paid off like crooked politicians, with briefcases of cash. Are they being bribed? Are they being rewarded? (Both—right, ladies?) Or like Cush Jumbo’s visual look as Katherina, with those Pippi Longstocking pigtails and those baby doll dresses. Are we supposed to inhale the whiff of pedophilia this implies? Or get creeped out because we’re even smelling it? 

Thematically, the beauty pageant frame is meant to be Meaningful with a capital M—at the start, Bianca enters on a bike that Katherina is pedaling, and her performance is interrupted when Kate, like a protester at a Trump rally, hijacks the microphone and denounces the whole event. Which tells us, right from the start, what to look for in what we’re going to see. And sometimes it’s there, but other times it’s not; and it’s not like it has to be there all the time, but the whole point of staying on message is that you don’t mix them, and in this production, those messages have been put through a Waring blender. In a show where everything is out there, to hilarious effect, it pulls back in crucial places instead of taking that firm extra step, or at least committing to the premise behind its shenanigans. Is this the destruction of a “disobedient” woman, or is it saying that such a thing is impossible? 

The perfect example of how it goes right and then wrong at the same time is the final scene. Katherina extends her hand for Petruchio to step on, and what do you know? She wins the beauty queen title! Which makes perfect sense, given the beginning: you tame a woman to win male beauty prizes. And if it had ended there—with Katherina becoming either the trapped or the willing beauty queen bride—pretty, subservient, a trophy—THAT would have been the perfect sting to the tail of this production. But no sooner does Kate win the contest than she does exactly what she did in the opening: hijack the mike and denounce the whole event—whereupon she’s hustled down a trap door and locked away. While Petruchio just stands there. (While. Petruchio. Just stands there.) And Bianca is named the Beauty Queen, and everyone gets their picture taken together, the end.  

If that doesn’t leave you scratching your head and saying “Huh?” then you are going to adore this production.  

Me, I feel like it was a great concept that wasn’t fulfilled with a lot of great ideas that weren’t tied together. But it has a lot going for it. It’s appealing and enjoyable and full of itself. It blusters, and it preens; it pats itself on the back for being enlightened; it says a lot but its words cancel each other out; and it makes promises that it never commits to. 

In other words, how perfectly male.

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