The shrew is a small, nasty animal of the rodent family, once common in some rural areas of England and New England; extending your hand toward it is not recommended, as its teeth are capable of slicing off a good chunk of human finger. How this unpleasant creature’s name came to mean, in English, any scolding or aggressive woman is a matter I will leave my feminist readers to ponder; the two don’t coincide in other languages. (The French call Shakespeare’s heroine a mégère, after one of the Furies; the Germans call her widerspenstig, obstinate.) Shrews— the rodent— being both tiny and essentially untamable, Shakespeare’s title is a joke; he makes sure you see this by putting the play inside a frame story, in which a whimsical aristo commands the players to perform it for a drunk tinker, whom he has had dressed up and gulled into thinking himself the lord of the manor. Henpecked, penniless, and starving, the tinker, Christopher Sly, revels in the story’s feasts and wine-
bibbings more than in its narrative of Kate’s subjugation: Not by accident, the text is larded with jokes that equate cates (sweetmeats) and Kates— two kinds of taste treats for hungry men.
Shakespeare’s play, as we have it, doesn’t finish Sly’s story; he falls asleep early on (after spouting what was Bernard Shaw’s favorite Shakespeare line: “A very excellent play— would ’twere done!”). But we have another of those anomalies that drive Shakespeare scholars crazy: an anonymous play called The Taming of a Shrew, printed in 1594. (The Shrew, à la Shakespeare, didn’t appear till the First Folio, in 1623.) Though only two-thirds the length of Shakespeare’s text, with which it shares many lines and situations, the anonymous play has more complications (Kate has two sisters instead of one), different character names, and a more complete Sly story, including an epilogue that puts the inner play in ironic perspective. Whether it’s earlier or later than the text we call Shakespeare’s, and how much either script really has to do with him, is a perpetual head-scratcher for textual analysts. (Stephen Roy Miller’s excellent new edition of the 1594 text, in the New Cambridge Shakespeare series, sets the issues out with admirable clarity, including a scene-by-scene diagram of the two scripts’ differences.)
I’ve gone into this long preamble because Mel Shapiro’s Central Park production, unusually for a contemporary staging of one of the early comedies, actually knows where the textual issues lie and how they affect the play’s substance. Shapiro indulges, inevitably, in all the extravagant slapstick and musical interruptions by which our contemporary populism strives to make antique comedies in blank verse palatable to the modern urban peasantry (a category that in New York specifically includes media executives, agents, and the daily reviewers), but unlike many younger directors, he knows how to do it inventively and without seeming laborious. Anyway, the play deserves it: The old professorial scam that used to treat The Shrew and Shakespeare’s other early errors as if they were gems of poetic perfection on the Hamlet level is deader than Will Kemp, two minutes of whose clowning would probably have sent a modern viewer scrambling for the remote.
In Shapiro’s rendering, the Lord who plays the prank on Sly becomes a Lady, into whose garden the tinker has climbed to escape the shrewish Hostess of the inn where he’s just caused a drunken brawl. The sight of Max Wright’s goggle-eyed, speech-slurring Sly invading set designer Karl Eigsti’s pretty miniature mockup of a Renaissance state, complete with colonnade and cupola, is just a prelude of the chaos to come. The players’ portable set pieces appear to have been shipped retroactively through time from Mondrian’s atelier, while Marina Draghici’s costumes get loonier with every step: Her apex, the wedding scene, features Katharina swathed in blood-red tulle, while Petruchio is apparently auditioning to become the new logo of the World Wrestling Federation, and Tranio, disguised as his master, suggests Sir Harry Lauder, on acid, auditioning for the title role in Annie. To complement the visual bedlam, composer Mark Bennett sprinkles every gap in the action with songs to Latin or Italian texts (translated in supertitles), bellowed by an improbably rowdy quartet of monks, to a cheerfully random assortment of modern musical styles, as if Carmina Burana and a gala cabaret concert were going on simultaneously.
And, yes, during all this you can still follow the play. Very easily, in fact, since Shapiro’s slapstick is mostly anchored in character, and crowded rather than cluttered. The tone of the acting is coarse, and its style brash, but The Shrew isn’t dainty-quainty caviar like Love’s Labors Lost; it’s bloody hamburger for the groundlings, and always was. A refined performance of it would be an insult to a text of which the most famous line— apart from some Cole Porter song titles— is probably, “What, with my tongue in your tail?” That’s the wit of the frame story, which Shapiro has rescued complete from the 1594 text: By turning The Shrew into a little man’s revenge fantasy, it frees Shakespeare from the redneck,
barefoot-and-pregnant view of woman’s role that makes the play repulsive to reasonable human beings. Instead of a proud woman humiliatingly brought low, Shapiro’s Kate (Allison Janney) is a brawling, tantrumy, spoiled-rotten monster, seething with sibling rivalry; she needs rough discipline to get her back in balance. And this Petruchio (Jay O. Sanders) is just the guy to enforce it, an athlete-sized, large-armed, wily but good-natured fellow, smart enough to see the inherent beauty and goodness that will only emerge in Kate when she learns to control her own temper.
Playing the brute with Janney, Sanders reveals Petruchio’s tender side in his soliloquies, handled with a subtle, abashed diffidence, full of apology for the harsh therapeutic measures he’s forced to take; Janney, meantime, builds stunning moments of vulnerability into her ferocious displays, increasing in length as the unyielding pressure goes on, till she finally cracks in the sun-and-moon scene. At which point, as again during the last banquet scene’s sanctimony, Shapiro has her and Petruchio share a laugh; these two are a matched pair.
Not everyone onstage gets so much chance to explore. Erica Alexander’s Bianca and Scott Denny’s Lucentio are more shoved around than active; Danyon Davis’s Biondello is asked only to live up to the fool’s cap on his head; and a little of Mario Cantone’s Grumio— played as a muscle-man’s sissified sidekick out of ’30s screwball comedy— would go a long way. On the other hand, Tom Mardirosian is a drolly hapless Baptista (his belated realization that he’s gotten rid of Katharina is one of the show’s best laughs), and Reg E. Cathey a smart, well-spoken Hortensio. And there’s Wright, always seeming to walk (or rather, lurch) in two directions at once, and rarely uttering a phrase without its own special gulp, stammer, or lapse into unintelligible mutter. I haven’t seen him this funny since I first came across him, as the infantilized king in Liviu Ciulei’s Arena Stage production of Leonce and Lena. Then he seemed the spirit of Harry Langdon come to life; now he’s graduated to the dementia of the young Ed Wynn. Either way, he’s a sublimely perfect fool. As he wanders off at the end, vowing to tame his wife, while simultaneously picking her a bouquet, he encapsulates both the essence of comedy and the intelligence that peeps out, smilingly, under the evening’s good-natured noise and frenzy.