Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
The Seattle Shakespeare Company has a reputation for doing very good work, and this particular production, first mounted in 2003, has been much talked about. The idea of doing "The Taming of the Shrew" with an all-male cast seems, at first blush, like pure gimmickry, and my fear was that it would simply be a camp travesty, trivializing the more troubling dynamics of the play and mocking the entire notion of gender politics. But this production has a considerably more serious intention, and is a lot more fun.
Because the actors never disguise their masculinity, but rather simply play character, it emphasizes the power relationships without the contemporary distraction of our own biases toward female sexuality as appearance. Beyond that, director Stephanie Shine has loaded the production with so much good-humored and often silly business that social politics is overshadowed by simple entertainment. It suggests that this might have been the way Shakespeare himself played to the groundlings while his weightier themes engaged the more sophisticated patrons. Beyond that, it clearly reminds us that this is a comedy, and that for all its contemporary resonance, it's really just a contest in which a struggle for domination becomes a puzzle with an obvious answer, but not an obvious solution. An excellent and energetic cast balances the dramatic action and the physical nonsense. The early part of the second act seemed a bit strained to me, but overall this was an intriguing and surprisingly satisfying interpretation, and one that provides a fresh perspective on a somewhat over-familiar, frequently uncomfortable play.
George Mount has a wiry toughness and resiliency that made Kate a formidable but still vulnerable character. Wrapping a skirt around himself or adopting some female gesture never compromised his masculinity, in the same way that acting more "ladylike" never changes Kate's essential character. Against Michael Patton's virile and commanding Petruchio, these two battled in much the way that a veteran drill sergeant might battle a particularly recalcitrant recruit. That both were men made some of the play's physical combat feel more like a tussle or a spirited wrestling match and less like actual abuse. Likewise, the deprivation of food and rest felt less cruel than simply harsh. The final effect of removing the physical reality of women being women in the play was to accentuate the notion of marriage as a financial and social transaction, without our inescapable expectation of love and romance.
Of the other characters, Beethoven Oden was particularly effective as the fair Bianca, which, given his muscular physique and handsome face, made his effusively "girlish" gestures and emotional outbursts all the more obviously superficial and contrived. Keith Dahlgren made his Baptista one of the few seriously grounded characters in the play, and managed to create a social order and stability for Kate's intransigence to threaten. I thought Timothy Horner was outstanding in the purely comic role of Grumio, playing an almost cartoonish buffoon with energy, excellent comic delivery, and good-natured invention. Chris Laxamano also brought enthusiasm and charm to Biondello, and the remainder of the company moved in and out of characters and ensembles with ease. One clear effect of this interpretation was to create an ensemble of players who felt like a band of pals having a lark and vastly enjoying one another's company. The sheer joy of performance for this company was obvious.
I was less thrilled with the physical production. John Kirschenbaum used an essentially bare stage with some unfinished ramps that allowed for fair variety in the physical movement, but didn't really create any sense of place. The play began with the stage masked off by yellow police tape, but why and what that was supposed to make us feel is a mystery to me. Likewise, the costume pieces, meant to be minimal and simply functional, worked well enough, but without much distinction or invention. The use of lots of contemporary and classic pop music added witty commentary and was well performed by the cast.
This production emphasizes by reduction how much of our contemporary sense of gender roles is based on physical appearance, on dress and faces and bodies, and how much of true gender politics is really about power, and about how one person or a society might apply it to others. For all that serious consideration, this show was a huge amount of fun and delightful in its pure entertainment. Yes, this is a play that always raises questions and generates some discussion of whether it is misogyny, satire, farce or political statement, but in the end perhaps it's much simpler than any of that. Perhaps it is about how we, as men and women, engage, dominate, submit, ally or oppose one another in our search for meaningful relationships. Or maybe it's just a romp.