By Mira Reinberg
Propeller, an all-male London-based Shakespeare company, burst on the stage at the Guthrie Theatre with a revived production of The Taming of the Shrew, and gave the audience a taste of Elizabethan theatricality: a performance that fuses physical action, linguistic sparkle, and arresting story into a spectacle of colorful éclat. And did we mention the rhythmic musical accompaniment, performed by the troupe throughout the play to ensure that every bit of irony and absurd does not go unnoticed?
With its all-male cast Propeller dispenses a pre-requisite of Shakespearean theatre from which modern audiences have become positively estranged. This design does, however, enable the troupe and its director, Edward Hall, to propel their way creatively through the mire of modern sensibilities that are still grappling with the concepts of un-marriageable daughters and wives in-need-of-taming.
The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, has been one of his most popular as well as controversial plays. In this production Hall is acutely aware of the contradiction and embarks on a presentation that plucks all the suggestive elements in the play and turns them into theatrical gems.
The Shrew is certainly written as a farce based on a popular theme of a drunkard tinker, Christopher Sly (Vince Leigh) who, having insulted his bride and friends is being taught a lesson. When he awakes from his sordid slumber, his friends convince him of his lordly status and present a play about forced marriages, trickery, and avarice. This is Shakespeare’s “induction” – the framework of the play, and the Propeller production thrives on accentuating the ludicrous and ironic turns of the script through a whirlwind of physical performance, facial gesticulation, preposterous attire, and an assortment of short musical bites, from Elizabethan to country, all performed in flying colors by a cast that continuously populates the stage, transforms from and into roles, and adjusts the set.
We love the play and long to “discover” an interpretation that would make the brutal taming of Katherine (Dan Wheeler) more palatable and less incriminating of the playwright. In foregrounding the farcical framework, Hall underscores the play within the play of the taming adventure and its phantasmatic quality. Sly agrees to participate in the play and thus transforms himself into Petruchio, the would-be husband who agrees not only to marry the fire-eater Katherine (and make himself rich) so her sister could be delivered to her suitors, but also to prove to the world that even a fury such as Katherine can be brought to heel and bridled into complacency, bearing gratitude to her husband.
Indeed Petruchio achieves his goal and Katherine’s final speech is a model of embarrassingly submissive rhetoric. But as Katherine transforms so does Petruchio, and most strikingly, so does the play. In this production the second Act has a different tenor. The dinner scene epitomizes the approach of Hall and his company in their portrayal of Petruchio’s “reverse psychology”: the hilarity of the attendants serving an abundance of food and the agony of Katherine being denied these “imperfect” dishes are an exquisite demonstration of how spirit succumbs to force.
The air is more somber now, and even as couples are united and inheritances are ensured, in Wheeler’s moving performance Katherine’s capitulation speech throbs with pain. Cruelty delivered as slapstick has only intensified the sight: neither tamer nor tamed has arrived, or brought us, to the kingdom where all’s well that ends well.
The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Edward Hall. Designed by Michael Pavelka. Propeller’s Production at the Guthrie Theatre, February 27-April 6, 2013. Tickets at 818 South 2nd Street Minneapolis, MN 55415 612 3772224 or http://www.guthrietheater.org/