STRATFORD, Conn. --If Shakespeare's name were not attached to The Taming of the Shrew, the play would doubtless be gathering dust. Ranking near the bottom of the canon, this early potboiler is a paltry piece of work. Shakespeare very likely cooked up this bit of woman-baiting to appeal to the myriad Elizabethan fans of bear-baiting. Only the S.P.C.A. came out ahead.
Yet Bernard Shaw raved on about the play as a remarkable example of "realistic comedy." What rot! Shrew is about as realistic as Peter Pan, and the work is, of course, pure farce. Now heaven knows that farce depends mainly on situation and incident rather than character. But good farce (like The Merry Wives of Windsor, for instance) concerns itself to some extent at least with character; in Shrew we don't even have the slightest idea why Kate is shrewish.
Maybe this is the reason directors are so drawn to Shrew. They see a special challenge in the task of trying to compensate for the endless deficiencies in the script by hoking it up with all manner of ingenious gimmicks, ploys, and business. But I have never seen a production of Shrew that succeeded in being amusing all the way through, and I never expect to.
Having mounted Shrew nine years ago, the American Shakespeare Fetstival has now tried again. Obviously it ran into troubles. The program credits the "original production concept" to Don Driver, who started out as the director. The staging was later taken over by Joseph Anthony. During rehearsals, the production ran through two actors for the main role of Petruchio before settling on John Cunningham (who I'm sure is the best suited of the three).
All we see at first is a blue sky with a few fair-weather clouds and a couple of trees. We hear John Duffy's music for brass, xylophone, tambourine and harp--and it sounds somewhat Spanish, curiously. A big wagon rolls into sight and disgorges an itinerant acting troupe, which takes bows before the audience. This could make sense, but Anthony has done away entirely with the Induction scenes, in which Shakespeare makes clear that Shrew is an entertainment within an entertainment.
As the show proceeds, we discover that the play is indeed intended to be Spanish--or is it Mexican? There are Spanish guitars; Petruchio and even Kate herself puff long cigars. Why all this Hispanicism for a work that makes so many specific references to Padua, Pisa. Florence, Mantua, Rome, Verina and Venice? Even the virtue of consistency is absent, however--especially in Hal George's costumes, which range in style all the way from the Renaissance to Dickens.
Tharon Musser's lighting makes obtrusive use of a follow-spot more appropriate for musical comedy. Or did she unconsciously hope the production would somehow turn into Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate? (Come to think of it, Duffy's incidental music does quote a couple of Porter snatches.) William Pitkin merits praise for his ingenious traveling wagon, which sprouts into all sorts of structures including eventually a second-floor balcony.
And would you believe that no-one connected with the production or the Festival Academy knows how to pronounce the name of Petruchio? Throughout the show it is invariably spoken with a k-sound, apparently by false analogy with Pinocchio. The Italian name is properly spelled Petruccio, and the Shakespeare Folio made it Petruchio precisely to provide a phonetic spelling for English-speaking actors. Thus it should be pronounced with a ch-sound as in "church." (The identical situation obtains with the name Borachio in Much Ado About Nothing.) Furthermore, Shrew's verse requires, except in three or four lines, that Petruchio be trisyllabic (just as it is in Italian).
John Cunningham gets about as much out of this role as there is in it. He comes on looking like something from a dentifrice advertisement and breezes through the part with unflagging brio, brilliance and briskness. As Kate, Ruby Dee enters appropriately in a flaming red gown and black hat with red panache, and proceeds to convey something of a hip-swinging tigress.
What is most impressive about this pair is their physical sparring. This has been carefully rehearsed, and one realizes that they are really playing with each other rather than opposite each other. The scene in which Petruchio withholds supper from a starving Kate is one of the few truly comic spots in the show, and it climaxes in Kate's stuffing a string of sausages surreptitiously down her bodice only to have Petruchio extract it. Elsewhere, she takes off one of her two high-heeled slippers to batter Petruchio, which gives a delightful new twist to his line. "Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?"
Vocally, Miss Dee's lack of Shakespearean experience is evident. Final phrases often fade into inaudibility, and she tends to drop final consonants in words like "mind" and "thousand." Her long concluding speech, wherein, tamed at last, she talks of wifely duty, comes out choppy, lacking shape and flow.
Of the three suitors of Kate's sister Bianca, Frederic Warriner's Gremio is undeniably droll. Garbed in lavender and flaunting a yellow handkerchief, he is a crotchet subject to asthmatic wheezing. When Kate's father asks about his material wealth, Gremio so delivers the word "pewter" as to shower his prospective father-in-law with spittle.
In his music demonstration, Hortensio (Todd Drexel) at least actually plays the 'cello on stage. And when Lucentio (Robert Benedict) pretends to give Bianca a Latin lesson, "Hic ibat Simois," etc. has been supplanted by "Gallia est omnis," etc. on the undoubtedly accurate grounds that Caesar's De Bello Gallico will be more familiar to audiences than Ovid's Heroides. One wonders, however, why any of these three gentlemen would want to marry Bianca, for Geneva Bugbee makes her an insipid nullity.
As the servant Tranio, Richard Morse shows little of the talent of his celebrated brother Robert; and the three other servants come off only a little better. Ted Graeber, dressed in blue with pink trim, has one engaging bit as a prissy tailor.
This Shrew has been cut to a running time of two hours, but even that is a long time for what is in general a hodge-podge of amateurism. And one hopes the Festival will give the play a rest for at least another nine years.
(Ed. note: A review of the Festival's "King Lear" will appear shortly. The drive to the handsome Shakespeare Festival Theatre on the Housatonic River in Stratford Conn. takes three hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike and Exit 53 from the Merritt Parkway. Performances start at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and have a tendency to begin promptly on the hour. There are free picnic facilities on the grounds.)