Directed by Kate Buckley
Reviewed by John Murphy
Kiss Me, Kate
Not even wet Oregon weather could dampen the spirits of the 2007 Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s fiery production of The Taming of the Shrew. After the sun had set behind the Elizabethan theater, light sprinkling became scattered showers with a few spells of steady downpours. Yet only a handful of wimps (probably Californians) packed up and left, while the majority was too enthralled to leave. It takes more than a little pixie spit to drive me away from a show featuring Vilma Silva.
Silva plays Katherina, the eponymous “Shrew”—a term once applied to the devil who here is the Bride from Hell. (Though casting Silva confirms Hamlet’s observation that the “devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”) Kate is the eldest daughter of Signor Baptista (Jeffrey King), a wealthy gentleman of Padua who despairs of ever finding her a suitable husband—meaning, a husband unafraid to wed a scolding spitfire with a tongue that could clip a hedge.
Baptista’s youngest daughter, the lily-white Bianca (Sarah Rutan), is by contrast Little Miss Sunshine. She’s a prim and proper young lady possessed of all the qualities a 16th century nobleman presumably found attractive in a potential wife: rich, beautiful, and docile. She has three very eager suitors competing for her hand, but the snag is that Baptista won’t give Bianca away until Kate is married. Who will tame the Shrew?
Enter Petruchio (Michael Elich), a Veronese gentleman who has “come to wive it wealthy in Padua; if wealthily, then happily in Padua.” A large dowry is the only quality to attract him; he can do without a sweet-tempered beauty. Could he be the one to subdue the lioness, Kate?
He finds eager encouragement coupled with dire warnings from Bianca’s suitors (“’Katherine the Curst,’ a title for a maid, of all titles the worst.”) as well as the beleaguered Baptista himself. They want to see Kate hitched, to be sure, but wouldn’t wish the fate on their worst enemy. “Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?” Petruchio asks them, assured of his ability to win over the wild Katherina. Baptista consents to the courtship, and so it falls to Petruchio to bridle the least eligible bride-to-be in Padua.
Micheal Elich – one of the company’s most reliably excellent leading men – finds just the right tone for Petruchio, a tricky role in the twenty-first century. The idea that a cocksure fortune-hunter should try to master a fiercely independent woman—“For I am he am born to tame you, Kate, and bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate conformable as other household Kates”—is intrinsically distasteful to modern audiences. Only an actor with charisma-to-burn can prevent Petruchio from coming across as an embarrassing artifact from a “less enlightened” era (though dramaturg Kate McConnell pointed out in an insightful intro to the play that gender roles weren’t quite so black & white in the 16th century as we might assume).
Kate calls her suitor a “mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen,” and there is indeed a touch of looniness to Elich’s interpretation. If Kate is the Devil, then Petruchio is the Tasmanian devil, a whirling dervish of energy and boundless self-confidence. Ostensibly, he pledges to woo Kate for the substantial dowry, but in a play where few things are what they first appear, the audience begins to suspect Petruchio’s real motive—the sheer fun of it. Wooing “Katherina the Cursed” presents a ripe, delicious challenge, and their encounters are verbal sparring matches. Petruchio pumps his fist with unabashed delight when he scores a palpable hit during this all-time great exchange:
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp, i’faith you are too angry.
Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
Katherine: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
Katherine: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katherine: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail?
Oh, snap! Even Kate has to appreciate that punchline. Petruchio loves to play, to banter, to provoke, to gib and gibe and make mock of Kate’s tantrums. Though he adopts the role of stern taskmaster to domestic-Kate, he ultimately disarms her with his wit and wily good humor. That’s the key to Elich’s charming Petruchio: he loves Kate and he’s having fun.
Kate Buckley, visiting director and master of these madcap ceremonies, tackles the apparent sexism of the play with tact. She weaves her cast through a field of potential landmines by taking an unapologetically populist approach to the production. In spite of its political incorrectness, Taming of the Shrew remains one of Shakespeare’s most accessible, good-humored, easy-to-follow plays. Buckley uses that age-old antidote to self-seriousness, humor, to disarm any initial resistance on the audience’s part. There’s even the proverbial “bit with a dog” to add to Buckley’s already well-stocked coffers of audience goodwill. When the cute little thing was hesitant about lying down on the rain-slicked stage, Elich ad-libbed “I know it’s wet, my lord,” to appreciative laughter and applause.
It also helps to have eye-candy costumes and a sparkling supporting cast. Beguiling turns by Robin Goodrin Nordli as Grumio, Petruchio’s defiant servant, and Jeff Cummings as Tranio, Lucentio’s brainy servant, add flavor to the feast. Bianca’s three suitors merit special mention: Danforth Comins as the dashing Lucentio, James Edmondson hobbling along as greybearded Gremio, and Shad Willingham hamming it up hilariously as Hortensio.
But the play ultimately belongs to Petruchio and wildcat Kate. As good as Elich is, Silva is more than his match. She is a vivid, colorful Katherina, tearing into the part with some of the great Anna Magnani’s Italianate tempestuousness. By the end of the play, one senses that Kate is not so much tamed by Petruchio as impressed by him. That’s the important distinction: he hasn’t bought her, he’s won her over. Now it’s Kate and Petruchio contra mundum. Allies, not enemies, their contention turned to tongue-in-cheek cooperation. I’m reminded of a small plaque at my grandparents’ house that read, “This marriage was made in Heaven, but so was thunder and lightning.”