The Battle of the Sexes
To ease the audience into the Taming of the Shrew, it is set up as a play within a play. The introduction has been modernized in this production: Tom Rooney welcomes everyone, shows off a rack of costumes and explains that this is his eighth season at Stratford, but the first time he has worn the typical Shakespearean pumpkin pants. Suddenly, there’s a commotion in the audience. Ushers are trying to move someone, but he argues that he should be able to stay, because he’s a theatre blogger! So immediately, he has my sympathy.
Once we are into the story inside the story, there is a feeling of déjà vu. Yes, we have seen this battle of the sexes before. Real life husband and wife team of Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay have already gone to war with each other on the Stratford Festival stage. In 2012, they battled as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing.
The whole premise is little unsettling, with its emphasis on the concept that a woman has to “obey”. But it is offset by the fact that she is so ornery and disagreeable in the beginning, that she deserves some payback. Also, when we remember that in Shakespeare’s time the women’s roles were played by men it becomes more palatable. The character of Katherina would actually have been striking a young male actor.
The main plot covers the courtship of Petruchio (Ben Carlson) and Katherina (Deborah Hay), who is rude and spoiled. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship, but Petruchio controls her until she becomes an obedient bride. A subplot features a competition between the suitors of Katherina’s pleasant-natured sister, Bianca (Sarah Afful). Unfortunately, their father, Baptista Minola (Peter Hutt) won’t let Bianca marry before Katherina.
Deborah Hay as Katherina excels with physical comedy, and as I pointed out in Much Ado About Nothing, she is a brilliant comedic actress who reminds me of Lucille Ball. She has those expressive I Love Lucy eyes. Ben Carlson perfectly demonstrates Petruchio’s braggadocio. We know that at first he is only after her dowry, but we also see a turning point when he decides he actually cares about her.
For overall entertainment, I much prefer Kiss Me Kate, a musical version based on an acting couple who are in the Taming of the Shrew. An excellent production of it was presented at Stratford five years ago in 2010. Somehow the battle of the sexes was on a more even playing field in the musical.
The Taming of the Shrew continues in repertoire until October 10 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
Photo: Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by David Hou.
The Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
Performed by Deborah Hay, Ben Carlson et al.
Produced by Stratford Festival
Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 11 to October 10, 2015
Reviewed by Mary Alderson