Theatre Review: The Taming of the Shrew

Bear & Co.’s production of The Taming of the Shrew opens the way you’d expect a modern staging of a Shakespearean play to. Actors in tights, capes and frilly shirts bounce pithy lines off one another while giving the audience the necessary exposition.

Then, with a crash, Nicholas Amott, playing the heroine Kate, drunkenly staggers through the audience, before being thrown into a dress and shoved onto the stage. It’s an eye-grabbing opening, and one that unexpectedly sets the tone of the light and breezy production.

The Taming of the Shrew

Director: Eleanor Crowder.
Musical Director: Rachel Eugster
Cast: Nicholas Amott, Brie Barker, Chris Bedford, Guy Buller, Jim Murchison, Scott Florence, Scott Humphrey, Tim Oberholzer.

The play begins with suitors coming to woo Bianca (Chris Bedford), the younger daughter of local lord Baptista (Brie Barker). However, Baptista refuses to marry off Bianca until his older daughter, Kate, the titular shrew, is wed. The suitors, turned off by Kate’s strong temper and bold attitude, enlist another suitor, Petruchio (Scott Florence), to marry Kate, and he proceeds to wear down her resolve through acts of cruel manipulation.

On its face, the content could be interpreted as rather dark, especially because it eventually strips Kate of any kind of agency. However, director Eleanor Crowder takes a different route. The production aims to make the play feel as though a travelling theatre company is performing it around 1594. Men make up the entire cast, which makes a few of the gender roles expressed in the play less troublesome.

It also helps that the production doesn’t take its characters very seriously. Florence plays Petruchio as a cad who’s lucky enough to charm the right people at the right times. Two suitors, Lucentio (Scott Humphrey) and Hortensio (Guy Buller), disguise themselves as tutors to get closer to Bianca. The plan is hare-brained, and the actors imbue their characters with this sense of naive foolishness. The plot works, but it’s mainly because suitor Gremio (Jim Murchison) and Baptista seem too ignorant to foil it.

The comedy of disguises extends to the decision to make the cast all-male. Putting a man in a dress to play a very dominant female character could have come across as an easy gag. But for every scene where Amott runs off crying or stumbles around like a drunken frat boy, there are two where he invests Kate with real intelligence and vigour. And when Lucentio gets hot and heavy with Bianca in front of Hortensio, the joke comes more from the fact that the couple are acting so publicly sloppy than from the fact that it’s a man under the dress.

Once in awhile, things do get too broad. The slide whistle played every time a character fawns over Bianca becomes tiresome. Thankfully, it seems to disappear by the end of the first act. While Shakespeare can be as bawdy as anyone, jokes like having Petruchio tie a bra around his head feel juvenile, and clash with the tone and eloquence of the dialogue. Overall, though, the production manages to rein itself in, and these distractions remain rare.

Crowder’s production hits all the right notes. It’s silly without being too broad, smart without being inaccessible, and, unlike its cast, it never drags.

The Taming of the Shrew runs from April 19 to May 5, 2013 at the Gladstone Theatre.