Style Over Substance
by David A. Rosenberg
Kate is a black-clad Goth dominatrix, Bianca a pink baby-doll Barbie. That much is clear in New Canaan Summer Theater’s lively but cluttered production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Played outdoors, though under a white tent, Shakespeare’s comedy is gussied up with hip-hop, rap, and runway posing, delivered by a high-energy cast emoting in as many different styles as there are characters.
You don’t have to be traditional to do Shakespeare. But you do have to trust the material. Under Allegra Libonati’s anything-goes direction, language and sense are downgraded in favor of an approach that yearns to be contemporary but comes off as studied.
The problems start at once with a fake folderol in which a supposed customer won’t pay his admission. Stalking about in a black hood that makes him look like a ghetto escapee, he starts a fight in which he’s knocked out. (At the performance caught, one brave citizen started to help until realizing that it was all part of the show.)
The intrusion leads to the play’s rarely performed Induction scene, which has puzzled scholars. And no wonder: it’s a confusing introduction to the main action which has to do with Baptista and his two marriageable daughters.
The not-so-dumb-blonde Bianca is all girlish curls and flirtatiousness. Her sister, Katharina or Kate, is a virago, screaming down the house and making herself thoroughly unattractive. Since she’s the older, she has to be married first. But who will tame this shrew?
Along comes Petruchio who’s come to wive it wealthily in Padua. Scooping Kate up, he disciplines her by starvation and manhandling – but no hitting. Although he seems to win by becoming her lord and master, an outcome that always arouses controversy, he’s really the instrument for showing that fealty and love win out when marriage is between two equals.
Of course, that’s not all. There’s the wooing of Bianca by several suitors, a mix-up of long-lost fathers (amusingly, an audience member is cajoled into one of those roles), plus the usual bardic disguises and surprises.
In New Canaan, it’s style over substance, with the production admittedly taking its clue from fashion shows. (Arthur Oliver designed the attractive costumes.) Entrances and exits are vogued with those peculiar walks that models affect. Petruchio’s “to me she’s married, not unto my clothes” suggests that outward show hides inner feeling.
Unfortunately, the concept pops up only occasionally amidst a potpourri of excessive emoting and individual performances that don’t fuse into an ensemble. Coming off best is Michael Chmiel’s Petruchio. Finding the character’s essence, slicing through the surrounding attempts at chicness, he’s cocky and amorous, engaging and commanding. None of the others comes up to his level, although Katherine Malak’s Kate matches him in their big fight scene and Omen Sade is a well-spoken Tranio.
All is not lost. Clever moments include initially placing the sisters on auction blocks like chattel, the running gag whenever Padua is mentioned, the tailor scene, rapping some speeches, serving pizza, having Petruchio’s servants look like hoods. When Libonati has both rebels, Petruchio and Kate, kneel to one another at the end, the theme of marriage as an ordered and happy bulwark against a disordered world comes into sharp focus. It’s a lovely moment, but only a moment in a production that substitutes action for coherence.