This is the question and the controversy raised by Shakespeare's most infamous comedy, The Taming of the Shrew.Now, we all know that marrying a strong-willed, headstrong woman because you need the money and then proceeding to break her will through physical abuse and starvation is perfectly justified—and a laff riot. And that a bunch of rich old guys trying to buy the hand of her quiet, pretty sister from her greedy father is the stuff of true farce.
But strangely, the mental and physical abuse inflicted upon the women in Shrewhas made this play, during the past 30 years at least, Shakespeare's most scrutinized and debated play. Few plays have been subjected to more psychoanalytic tinkering and conceptual updating by companies out to salvage Shakespeare's rep by trying to reason away the play's inherent sexism.
The latest tweaking comes courtesy of those daring souls at Rude Guerrilla, who explore the question from a new perspective—by gender-reversing most of the key roles. It's a move that seems to suggest the following philosophical hypothesis: if by reversing the genders of Kate and Petruchio the play ceases to be sexist and/or abusive, the play was never sexist to begin with.
As a concept, this smacks of the worst kind of sensational gimmickry.
But in practice, thankfully, it works. The role-reversals illuminate the meaning of a text that is more social satire than a true endorsement of any effort to keep women down. Petruchio (a brash and lusty Susan E. Taylor) certainly abuses Kate (a flawless Jay Michael Fraley) as he attempts to break her infamous spirit. But one can't help noticing that Petruchio is just as rude and abusive to everyone else, regardless of gender. Petruchio isn't sexist; he's just an asshole.
The players hurdle the greatest challenges to their adaptation. Taylor's physical presence makes it believable that she'd snap Fraley in two if she wanted. The decision of co-directors Dave Barton and David Gallo to use male pronouns for female characters (and female for male) is a little jarring at first, but the ear soon adjusts.
While Barton and Gallo don't take full advantage of the stage space (if you sit in the wings, you may miss a lot of the physical comedy) and make a few questionable choices (such as the added romantic sub-subplot between Lucentio and his manservant, Tranio, that adds some baggage to the play), they successfully bring new meaning to the text. Yeah, it's a production that will make you think about gender/power relationships in society, but—more important—it's funny.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW AT THE Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Aug. 20. $10-$12.