The last two Arin Arbus Shakespeare productions I saw were sparse and true to the letter, great classical interpretations of great classical works. But her Taming of the Shrew (also by Theater for a New Audience, through April 21) is looser and livelier. Set against a kind of Wild West backdrop—to emphasize the play’s gender-battling lawlessness, perhaps?—this Shrew has long coats, wide-brimmed hats, wood-board sets and a Stephen Foster-ish score (by Michael Friedman). But nothing about it feels particularly fusty. Instead, it crackles with contemporary verve; it’s a genuine knee-slapper without some strange conceptual framework. It’s faithful and traditional, but also popping and alive, much like Karin Coonrod’s triumphant Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Public last season.
The cast deserves much credit for this. TAFNA has a core stable of supporting players who supply much of the yuks here, particularly the Michael Richards-esque John Keating (as Tranio) and John Christopher Jones (as Gremio); Jones not only teases out Shakespeare’s humor but finds much where none was surely intended; every line he speaks, whether it contains the most quotidian information, is good for a laugh.
Played right, The Taming of the Shrew is proto-screwball. Here, there’s a welcome dose of slapstick, too, but the play’s core is its madly mated pair—Katharina and Petruchio—and their rapid and bawdy verbal sparring. (“Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.” “In his tongue.” “Whose tongue?” “Yours, if you talk of tails, and so farewell.” “What, with my tongue in your tail?”) Shakespeare’s acid Katharina has aged into a fetish creature of modernity—hot-tempered, quick-witted, fierce and unforgiving. But she is quickly broken like a puppy by her suitor Petruchio, stripped of her bruising will and domesticated—worse, made obedient.
How, then, for a modern director to engage with Katharina’s final speech, the unabashed ode to feminine submission, wherein she opines that “Such duty as the subject owes the prince/Even such a woman oweth to her husband”? Arbus embraces such wifely fealty with irony. Played by Maggie Siff (the department store heiress on Mad Men), Katharina recites her lines obsequiously, with a sly, knowing smile, as though a joke both she and her husband are in on. Arbus suggests Kate’s willfulness a false front, a bit of swagger, a disguise abandoned in the face of agreeable love. It’s a happy ending a hard-line supporter of women’s rights might even appreciate.