The Taming of the Shrew: Thought-provoking and gender-bending

Suitors (Tam Williams, Jack Tarlton) vie for the hand of Bianca (Jon Trenchard) in the all-male cast
Manuel Harlan

The Taming of the Shrew is considered one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays, especially for audiences who don't believe a woman should be absolutely subservient to her husband.

The play is actually more nuanced than that, which English company Propeller uses to stunning effect in its all-male production. A framing device in the original script sets up the main text as a play within a play, a cautionary tale for a drunkard, Christopher Sly.

With that in place, the harrowing events unfold as Kate's will is broken by the mental and physical abuse of her husband, Petruchio. Director Edward Hall and the rest of the company don't play this for comedy at all. We get no sense that Kate is playing Petruchio back, or that there will be some kind of marriage of equals in the end. This is pure dominance.

That isn't to say the show doesn't have laughs. The company is able, physical, and ready to play humor where they can find it. The story provides plenty of avenues for that, as other plot streams are nearly as dark as what's happening back at Petruchio's house.

A quick recap. Kate is the "shrew." Her younger sister, the beautiful Bianca, wants to marry but can't until the elder sister is married off. Petruchio enters the scene, decked out in tight red jeans, a red leather jacket, and cowboy boots, strutting like a rock star, and willing to take on Kate for the right dowry. While that goes on, the courting of Bianca continues, with characters, often in disguise (hey, it's Shakespeare), fighting for her hand.

Our focus, however, rests on the Kate and Petruchio story line. Kate, in her Doc Martens, black leggings, and a shock of blond hair, is a fiery free spirit at the beginning, railing against anyone and everyone, knocking down the suitors, and warring with her sister and father.

Once Kate is married, her freedom is lost. Bound by the marriage contract that forces her to be subservient to her husband, she isn't able to escape. Like a modern-day torturer, Petruchio refuses her food, drink, and sleep. And like Winston Smith before the Thought Police, Kate is forced to accept the contrary lies of her husband, who insists that day is night and that the old man before them on the road is actually a young maiden.

It all sounds dire, but the verve of director Edward Hall's vision carries the day. He never shies away from the implications of the text and forces us to reconsider what is comedy and tragedy when it comes to Shakespeare. The acting company is remarkable as well, led by Vince Leigh as Petruchio/Sly and Dan Wheeler as Kate. Leigh loads his performance with constant menace. Wheeler plays both sides of Kate's personality well, from the force of nature at the beginning to the broken soul at the end. The honesty of Wheeler's acting makes the character's fate all the more heartbreaking.

Propeller is presenting Twelfth Night in repertoire with The Taming of the Shrew through April 6. The action can spill out of the theater. On opening night, the cast entertained guests in the fourth-floor lobby during intermission, singing "Rebel, Rebel," "Matrimony," and "Brown Eyed Girl."

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