Just when the political stage started singing the chorus of a “war on women,” William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
This is one of the most controversial of the Bard’s plays and has been almost since it was first performed.
It is the story of the tough, wild Katherine, who is headstrong and perhaps a bit vulgar. Before her younger sister, the demure, beautiful Bianca, can be married, Katherine, or Kate as she’s pointedly called, must be married off.
And so begins the story of Kate’s being broken through the charming gold-digger Petruchio’s wiles. After being nearly tortured, Kate finally falls in love. So, at least in the opinion of this shrewish reviewer, the play is deeply problematic at its core.
However, the Helen Hayes Award- winning director Aaron Posner sculpts this production so the audience doesn’t chafe and buck when Petruchio starts his campaign to “tame” his new bride. He sets the play in the Wild West of the 1880s. Kate’s a hard-drinking cowgirl who can lick any man in the saloon.
Posner also decided to change the sexes of two of the characters from men to women. Kate’s father, Baptista Minola — played by the incredible character actor Sarah Marshall — is now a frustrated single mother. Tranio, the servant to one of Bianca’s suitors, has also been changed from a man to a woman, creating a love triangle with her master and Bianca. Holly Twyford, who plays the unlucky servant, is marvelous at playing the woman playing a man in hopeless love with her master.
These casting decisions add depth to the story and tease out the complexity and charm of the play. Posner’s decisions add a critical nuance that is unique to this production. This is especially true in the character of the blind balladeer, the gravelly voiced singer-songwriter Cliff Eberhardt.
The loves, losses and internal struggles playing out on stage are underscored to great effect by Eberhardt’s music and performance, which is something like Tom Waits meeting Willie Nelson by way of Bob Dylan. In short, the music alone is worth the price of admission.
However, probably the best choice Posner made was casting Cody Nickell as Petruchio and Kate Eastwood Norris as Kate. The two are married in life and it is their own connection that resolves some of the more problematic aspects of the play.
Six years ago, Nickell and Norris fell in love while playing another of Shakespearean’s great lovers.
“We met in another Aaron Posner show,” Norris said. “‘As You Like It,’ and we were playing Rosalind and Orlando.”
Since then, the couple has been cast in the same shows, but this production of “Taming of the Shrew” is the first time they have played opposite each other since they first fell in love.
Every night on the Folger’s stage, the audience is privileged to witness two great actors in love shepherding their characters through the struggles, battles and ultimate surrender that is falling in love.
“I wasn’t really a fan of this play,” Norris said. “That was back when I didn’t know, or I didn’t understand, the deeper message.”
In this production, Norris explained, the audience sees a Kate who is not “fine.” This Kate isn’t a plucky, headstrong girl. She is a broken, angry woman.
In Petruchio, she finds the one person who not only can help her, but who understands her intuitively and can meet her in her darkest psychological state.
Unfortunately for Kate, even in this fun, loving version of “Taming of the Shrew,” she is still tortured, starved and deprived of sleep. It is still painfully uncomfortable to witness domestic abuse even when excused and explained in iambic pentameter.
However, there is a moment where the play touches the truth of loving and being loved when the characters Posner, Nickell and Norris have structured arrive at a mutual, gentle submission.
Petruchio demands for Kate to accept that the sun is the moon, because he says it is so. In this version, Kate gives over grudgingly, agreeing with her captor and finally understanding that to love is to accept the object of one’s love.
In that moment, the couple demonstrates what everyone who has ever been in any kind of love knows: Love is rarely about being right; it is about surrender and unconditional acceptance of another person.
“The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare Directed by Aaron Posner Folger Elizabethan Theatre 201 East Capitol St. SE Tickets: $30-$65 Runs through June 10