If awards were given to program notes, then the odds on South Coast Repertory’s Shrew! would be even money. Among the insightful reads is SCR dramaturg John Glore’s two-page treatment of the history of Shakespeare’s popular but problematic The Taming of the Shrew and Amy Freed’s process in writing her new, imaginative, reshuffling. None of it is required reading for those already familiar with Shakespeare’s original. But those unfamiliar with the story, as well as the debate over whether Shakespeare really meant the psychological and physical humbling of the titular female character, might want to consider getting to the theater a bit early and perusing the program copy. Because in this production, a richly entertaining and imaginative piece of meta-narrative, context is just about everything.
What Freed—one of SCR’s favorite playwrights over the past 20 years—has done with Shrew isn’t to elevate or eviscerate the original. She doesn’t let it speak for itself, as a traditional rendering would do, but she also doesn’t deconstruct or radically alter the story. Instead, she has kept the rich poetics and style while reconciling it with the sensibility of a razor-sharp female writer in the 21st century.
The plot remains the same: A wealthy Italian lord (a hilarious Martin Kildare) has two daughters, the elder Kate (a multifaceted Susannah Rogers), a stubborn, independent hellion, and the younger Bianca (a charming, eye-fluttering Sierra Jolene), a pampered coquette. Suitors line up for the younger, but in order to grant permission to marry her, the father mandates the elder get hitched first. Enter Petruchio (a deceptively deep Elijah Alexander), a swaggering, battle-tested Alpha from Verona, hellbent on marriage. He meets Kate, sparks and words fly, they marry, and he takes her back to his estate before they both return to Padua for the wedding of Bianca.
While the plot and the characters are familiar, Freed infuses everything with a rollicking sense of ironic fun and more than a few raised middle fingers. The play freely admits the problems in the original—from the misogynic ending and the dopey clowns to the litany of dick jokes and ridiculous courtship of Bianca. Meta-flourishes and anachronisms abound—the Godfather and “The Macarena” being just two of many. The audience is constantly reminded that it is watching a play, one that struggles with the weight of its legacy. That’s clear from the outset, in which Freed resuscitates the oft-ignored prelude, this time featuring a 16th-century Englishwoman yearning to be a playwright but forced to disguise herself as a man. She is friends with a certain playwright named Will, and he has asked her to help him finish a play that he isn’t happy with. What follows is the play that might have resulted if Shakespeare had a female editor.
One of Freed’s most ingenious touches is the role of the clowns: Grumio (the always-mesmerizing Danny Scheie) and Biondello (Bhama Roget, drawing on the feisty charm, if not the psychotic tendencies, of DC’s Harlequin). Always a distraction, if not a downright annoyance, in Shakespeare’s tale, the clowns as conceived by Freed are instruments of chaos; while the rest of the characters are awash in machinations and romantic and economic conquest, these two seem to suggest the unbridled, irrational beat of the human heart. They are about as important in the telling of the story as they are in Shakespeare’s original, but at least this time they are fascinating to watch.
If there is an issue with this show, directed with gusto by Art Manke and laid out on Ralph Funicello’s ravishing set accentuated by Jaymi Lee Smith’s evocative light design, it’s that everything seems set up for that mountain that every Shrew must eventually hike: Kate’s speech at the end. It’s clear from their initial meeting that Kate and Petruchio are perfectly matched, which reduces their legendary clash into more of an affectionate pillow fight. We already feel how Kate’s going to sound in her climactic monologue, so there’s little suspense. But the saving grace is we don’t know just what she is going to say.
And when that times comes, Freed, in a masterstroke, stops the action. Johnson-as-Kate-as-16th-century-English-playwright-as-21st-century-playwright-Freed admits she doesn’t know what the hell she is supposed to say. And then she rattles off a gorgeous soliloquy that—in this noisy era of sexual predation, #metoo, pink pussy hats, sexual and gender identity, cis-this and trans-that—forces everyone to ponder something simpler, yet also far more complex.
For what Freed accomplishes in the climactic speech, as well as her tale as a whole, is shifting the focus from a classic battle of the sexes—in which a dominating man, or a subversive female playing the ending with a sly wink to the audience, triumphs—into something far less political, but also far more universal and human. In this tale, gender, whether biological or socially constructed, doesn’t win. Love does.
Shrew! at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through April 21. $20-$74.