The Taming of the Shrew

From 10/25/2002 to 11/24/2002


One of Shakespeare?s early works and bawdiest comedies, the play tackles a subject which remains a lightning rod for modern audiences: gender roles.


The reviews are in.

“In a gorgeously costumed and playfully surreal production at the Old Arizona, Frank Theatre director Wendy Knox challenges audiences’ expectations by directing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew closer to tragedy than to comedy. But it was comedy that Shakespeare intended for Shrew and comedy that I anticipated. The dislocation between the playwright’s intention, the director’s interpretation and my expectations created tensions for me on opening night that were hard for me to resolve. I felt desolated and cheated by Katherina’s automaton-like closing speech about wives obeying their husbands; there wasn’t a flick of flirtation in it, not a glimmer of realized womanhood. Not until I drove home did I begin to understand Knox’s take on Shrew, and then it resonated with me as a woman.

For Shrew to work as comedy, the spitting, railing and fiery Katherina needs to fall in love with her sudden husband, Petruchio; she needs to grow into womanly obedience by being tamed as much by her own desire for him as by his “training” of her.

Knox gives us a spitfire in Virginia Burke’s Katharina. She’s tough, pretty and physically and verbally pugnacious. This rag-tag Kate drags on a cigarette and flings Tampax at adversaries. But once her rich father Baptista, played by Tom Sherohman, trades her away in marriage like so much chattel, she becomes passive. Lee Adams as her husband Petruchio breaks her will by isolating her on his country estate, abusing his servants in front of her and playfully but determinedly depriving her of food, sleep and fine clothes, until she sways to his every caprice. There’s no sense of a relationship between this Kate and Petruchio. For him, she’s a possession to be tamed, like a fine but feisty falcon. For her, it’s about shutting down emotionally in order to survive the hostile environment created by her husband. At play’s end, she’s an abused woman with a broken spirit.

Viewed through the 21st century lens of our relative enlightenment, the deliberate use of fear, hunger and sleep-deprivation to change behavior amounts to abuse. No two ways about it. And it is present in Shrew. But it’s still a hard reading to pull off, because Shakespeare embeds the play with the merry confusions of amorous old men, suitors disguised as tutors, and servants impersonating masters, all the Elizabethan devices of light-hearted comedy that set up expectations of a happy resolution. Shakespeare also wrote his text to support a manly and likeable Petruchio, and Adams’ Petruchio is attractive in a mildly oafish way.

Paul de Cordova as Tranio and the impish Emily Zimmer as Biondello light up the stage with their presence and, in one of many pleasing directorial touches, Knox has Michael Croswell and Mike Russell play period music onstage. Kathy Kohl’s zany costumes range from modern janitors’ suits to the glories of Elizabethan dress and stun the eye.

With its large cast, Shrew is an ambitious play for Frank Theatre, and Knox’s brave reading touches me as a woman, but it couches awkwardly within the bed of Shakespeare’s comedy.”

?The Taming of the Shrew? is not generally considered one of Shakespeare?s finest plays. Over the years, its humor between the sexes has been dampened by audiences who have tired of its blatant aggression toward women. Its current production at the Frank Theatre, however, breathes fresh ideas and controversy into this stale comedy.

Director Wendy Knox keeps this ?Shrew? completely faithful to Shakespeare?s text. In fact, an opening sequence ? often eliminated from performances ? is wisely included in this production. In these two opening scenes, a wandering lord discovers a drunken Christopher Sly (played by Lee Adams) and devises a plan to convince this peasant, upon waking, that he is also a lord. The drunk believes the story, and the lord and his servants perform a play for the ecstatic, intoxicated fool.

This play within a play tells of Katherina (Virginia Burke) and Bianca (Signe V. Harriday), two sisters old enough to wed. The older Katherina is the ?shrew? of the play?s title ? society views her opinions, arguments and independence as flawed. Bianca, by contrast, is a model, passive woman who entertains many suitors. However, their father has stated that Katherina must marry before Bianca may choose a husband, and this leaves Bianca?s suitors hopeless and frustrated. Circumstances change when an avaricious Petruchio, also played by Adams, comes to town searching for a wife. He is quickly convinced that he can wed Katherina for her money and tame her to his liking.

The humor of this situation is well-executed: Notable performances include Tom Sherohman as Baptista, the girls? father, who executes his lines with thunderous exaggeration. With his head tilted back and an explosive voice, Sherohman?s eccentric delivery reminds the audience that this is a play performed for the pleasure of the observing Sly.

Knox?s use of Lee Adams is particularly noteworthy. Playing both the arrogant Petruchio and the drunken Sly, his double identity forces the viewer to confront one of Shrew?s core messages: manipulation. As Petruchio, Adams molds Katherina into his ideal image. As Sly, he is manipulated for another?s entertainment. There is a sadistic undertone here that weaves its way in and out of Shrew?s comedy, as characters frequently force their desires and wills on others.

As Katherina, Burke embodies the scars of a strong woman beaten down over time. She is introduced to the play smoking a cigarette, chugging a Budweiser and crushing the can. But after Petruchio marries her, Katherina?s individuality grows weaker and weaker. Her internal pain is not presented comically, but destructively, through an increasingly ragged face, torn clothes and ruffled hair.

The play?s final scene is the most modernized of the production. In a standard performance, Katherina, tamed into submission by Petruchio, admonishes her sister to also submit to her husband. But in this production, Katherina acts not out of her own free will, but in screaming fear of her abusive husband. She does not believe what she is saying and does what Petruchio says for her own safety. In a truly haunting final gesture, Burke climbs atop the wedding table, stares into space and finishes her lines in quiet resignation.

It is this final scene, and the ubiquitous Christopher Sly, that shed new light on ?The Taming of the Shrew.? The viewer is not allowed to passively dismiss the story as comedy, but is required to re-examine the play?s humor and commentary in its final moments. And through exploring ?Shrew?s? darker side, Frank Theatre has given ?Shrew? a modern twist worthy of a second look.

Steven Snyder, Minnesota Daily

“The best theater this month was Wendy Knox’s Frank Theatre production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW which played at Old Arizona studios. Frank not only does the best local Shakespeare, but their work comes close to the best we’ve seen anywhere. Virginia Burke’s sluttish Katherina the Shrew, and Lee Adams’ hunky Petruchio, her would-be tamer, along with a splendid supporting cast of servants, relations, and assorted folks, filled the Old Arizona stage with ribald pranks and dazzling repartee. Steve Rohde’s set fitted the space perfectly, and Michael Croswell and “Razz” Russell accompanied the action with terrific live music. We’re looking forward to Frank’s winter production, THE LOVE SONG OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER coming in February.”

Martha and Marty Roth, Southside Pride

In her staging of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” Wendy Knox wants to have it both ways.

On the one hand, historian Knox realizes that this play is listed under “Comedies” in collections of the Bard’s plays. On the other hand, feminist Knox sees the central action of the play as being that of a man breaking a woman as he would a wild horse.

What to do, then? It would be inaccurate to say that Knox steers a middle course between those two routes. No, she’s done something far more complex with the play, an approach that is certainly opinionated and thought-provoking without feeling pedantic.

Knox has made a few over-arching decisions, the most important of which is that this is not in any way a love story ? at least not in the relationship between the central characters. Petruchio has come to wife it wealthily in Padua, and in Kate, the daughter of the rich Baptista, he finds the ideal woman for his purposes. She’s a bit too strong-willed, but Petruchio, employing techniques like starvation and mind games, figures he can deal with that.

Lee Adams, a brawny, easy-grinning guy, plays Petruchio with a trailer-trash charm and the depth of an ice-cube tray, which is exactly what Knox wants him to do. Because Petruchio has no self-awareness and is governed by his tunnel-visioned, self-amusing quest, there’s little in the way of malice in his mistreatment of Kate.

Kate ? realized in this production as a Bud-swilling, Tampax-chucking, cigarette-smoking bad girl ? is played with a wicked gleam and plenty of smarts by Virginia Burke. It doesn’t take Burke’s Kate long to figure out what Petruchio’s up to, and she decides rather quickly that, trapped as she is by the conventions of society, she’s going to have to go along to get along.

The strain takes its toll, however, and so, after a few scenes of rolling her eyes in mock-acquiescence to her husband, hairline cracks begin to show up in Kate’s psyche. By the end, when Kate delivers her only long speech about wives being submissive to their husbands, it’s part rant and part nervous breakdown.

Burke carries this moment magnificently, breathing through the monologue in staccato rasps and showing flashes of pain and panic along the way. Lee, too, allows Petruchio a glimmer of realization, and a moment of wondering about the consequences of his own actions. You get the idea that the most interesting part of this play is what happens to Kate and Petruchio in the weeks and months that follow the play’s conclusion.

Knox mostly leaves the comedy to the players who populate the secondary story line about Kate’s younger sister, Bianca, and her would-be suitors. She also leaves in Shakespeare’s frequently cut prologue in which “The Taming of the Shrew” is framed as a play within a play, and adds a little pre-show business of her own.

Those devices stretch the evening past the three-hour point, and the extra time isn’t worth it for the relatively meager laughs that result. Knox seems to want to leaven her production, but she needn’t have bothered: There’s plenty of yeast in her staging the way it is.

Dominic Papatola, St. Paul Pioneer Press