For Theatricum Botanicum’s 40th season they opened with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and they opened with a bang! Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is the story of Baptista’s two daughters Bianca and Katharina. Katharina – the shrew – is headstrong, raucous, quarrelsome, and in general, a pariah that is doomed to never marry. Bianca is her younger sister. She is beautiful, well behaved, everything you would want in a wife and has suitors lining up at her door to court her. So to solve his problem of marrying off Katharina, Baptista announces to Bianca’s suitors that Bianca must stay a maid until Katharina is married and that he will block off all access to her with the exception of tutors. Enter Petruchio, a man that has inherited his father’s wealth and lands and has come to Padua to wed a woman with an ample dowry. Thus the scheming and hijinks begin.
Hortensio, a suitor to Bianca, convinces Petruchio that he should marry Katharina because of her wealth. Petruchio accepts this challenge of “taming the shrew” while Hortensio and another of Bianca’s suitors, Lucentio; disguise themselves as tutors so that they may woo Bianca. While Petruchio “kills” Katharina with kindness to tame her wild ways, Lucentio, disguised as a tutor, successfully woos Bianca, gets rid of his competition and secures her hand through his servant – who is disguised as Lucentio. There are mistaken identities, shenanigans and even a bit with a dog – three dogs to be precise – ending with frivolity and a wedding. It is a Shakespearean comedy after all!
However, for today’s audiences this play can be somewhat problematic, as the majority of it focuses on breaking down a headstrong woman to recognize the authority and obey her husband’s every command; or, in other words, the exact opposite of the feminist agenda. Even when done well, this play can be somewhat grating for a strong-willed, independent woman. While this production did have a modicum of grate, it was largely absent due to the phenomenal job of Aaron
Hendry as Petruchio.
Under the direction of Ellen Geer, Hendry capitalized on the madness of Petruchio, not just for wanting to undergo such an expedition, but as a character trait in general. His energy, arrogance, enthusiasm and love were infectious from his first appearance on the stage. Instead of a man deigning to take on a shrew for a large dowry, Hendry played a man who has finally met his equal, his perfect match, and the moment he first lays eyes on her it is obvious that he falls in love at first sight. So later when he is “taming” her, it is wholly believable that he is doing it out of a love for her and a desire to see her happy. The interplay between Hendry and Willow Geer, as Katharina, in the second act – after intermission, not Shakespeare’s second act – quickly becomes playful and by the end is born from a love of each other and respect of each other instead of a subordination of one to the other. This point is made masterfully at the close of Katharina’s ending speech.
Unfortunately, for most of the play Geer’s Katharina falls short of Hendry’s Petruchio. Until the wedding scene, Geer’s Katharina is largely stereotypical. She rants, she rails, she screams, she scratches herself, but at no point do we get to see her vulnerability. We don’t get to see the hurt and the jealousy that has caused her to act the way that she does. We see the shrew and are expected to fill in the blanks as to how she got that way on our own. After intermission she matches Hendry step for step in their journey, but without seeing her vulnerability at the beginning, her transformation into a loving relationship lacks the poignancy that it could have had.
The rest of the ensemble is brilliantly cast and does a marvelous job. Had there been a lesser Petruchio at the helm, the servants would have stolen the show. Melora Marshall, as Grumio, is a riot. Her timing and delivery is spot on and she has that brilliant ability to blend into the background and disappear until she is called on again. Marcello Olivas, as Biondello, has a great physicality and sense of comedic timing and Gerald C. Rivers, as Christopher Sly – not a servant but let’s lump him in anyway – has a great naïveté that is so necessary in that role. Ellen Geer’s use of live musicians, who also did sound effects, was beautifully executed and enlivened the production so much more than canned effects ever could have.
In their 40th season, Theatricum Botanicum delivers in a big way. This is a brilliant production full of mirth, mischief and above all love.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News