Cal Shakes sexes up Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

With ticket in hand, I approached the showing of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Drawing closer to Cal Shake’s amphitheater, the unexpected thud of club music echoed around the courtyard. The front of the press packet read “Reimagining The Classics” in bold lettering.
And a reimagining it was. With the work’s two leading ladies in yellow leotard, the play openswith a distinctly Lady Gaga-esque dance number, complete with air clawing and swarthy-looking men in tuxedos. Pastel and plastic reign supreme on the open-air stage, a far cry from the Padua of old.

The California Shakespeare Theater, locally known as Cal Shakes, is closing its 2011 season with Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The play’s eponymous shrew, Katherine, is headstrong, wild and sharp-tongued. Her demure sister, Bianca, by decree of the girls’ father, cannot be married until Katherine has been betrothed. As soon as a series of plans is launched by Bianca’s suitors to woo her, Petruchio tasks himself to court and marry “the shrew.”

Under the direction of Shana Cooper, the modern flavor of the play is unmistakable, and in the end, a major distraction.  In the attempt to lend Katherine and Bianca the power of the modern woman, Cooper creates a world oozing with sex, sleaze and exaggerated physicality from which the playgoer has no relief.

Like one of today’s advertisements, the production was wrought with a multitude of elements all vying for the viewer’s attention. Several of the actors in the troupe gave stunning, stand-alone performances. Petruchio is played by Slate Holmgren, who infused the role with the potent bombast it required.  The three young Florentians imbue the production with immature but endearing Three Stooges-like physical comedy.

Danny Scheie, however, stole the show with his portrayal of Gremio, Bianca’s elderly suitor.  With the nasal drone of a New Yorker and hand-waving flamboyance, Scheie derived the most response from the audience, providing the audience with one of the few likable characters in the production.
The two underwhelming performances in the play were given by the work’s central women, Kate and Bianca: The two actresses played their roles with little-to-no subtlety.  Katherine, played by Erica Sullivan, shouted every line and plowed through much of the delicate wit that makes the character such an enduring literary figure.

Alexandra Henrikson’s rendition of Bianca, although mildly comedic, was distractingly sexual and vapid.  Bianca’s shift in characterization, from a perfectly obedient daughter to a rebellious and disdainful wife, is marked by a moment when Bianca stands at center stage, with a look of unfitting vacancy.

Cooper, by attempting to characterize Kate and Bianca as powerful women in the context of a postmodern setting, adds a complex but confusing element to the work’s central battle of the sexes.  In an ultimate concession, Katherine delivers a monologue in the final act.  She elaborates on the obedient duties of women, while dressed in current, office-like apparel.  The contrast between her appearance and her speech certainly gives mixed messages.

Although overwhelming at times, Cooper’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is undeniably beautiful. However, in order to present the material in a distinctive manner, the play pushes too hard and too far, and falls into the same trap as countless other Shakespeare productions; in the process of finding a unique voice, drowns out the voice of the Bard himself.