The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and oft-staged comedies — yet also one of his most vilified and hotly debated, on account of its apparent misogyny. The plot revolves around the courtship of two sisters: the gullible (but more desirable) Bianca, and her headstrong sister Katherina (played by Cush Jumbo), the title’s “shrew” in need of being tamed. Performing this play for a 21st century audience well-versed in the language of feminism is not an easy task, and many contemporary theater companies have grappled with the text’s main themes of wife-bashing and submission, searching for some unrevealed feminist subtext or fresh interpretation. However, this Shakespeare in the Park production tackles that challenge head-first: in the very first seconds of the play, a booming voice — instantly recognizable as that of our current Republican presidential nominee — announces the Miss Padua beauty pageant, while a host of bikini-clad women come parading out on stage.
Framing the gender politics of the 16th-century play by linking it squarely to the present day — a time when the presidential election is being fought out between the first female nominee and a 70-year-old macho man who seems to wear his overt sexism as a badge of honor –this New York City production asks us to consider its misogyny in a contemporary context. The action plays out over a beautifully crafted set in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, evoking a starred-and-striped circus arena which — besides offering an apt metaphor for the political circus — sets the scene for a production that both questions and revels in performance. Musicians who deliver a live audio commentary to the dialogue and ongoing mating dance between the characters, offer up a reminder of the performance elements underlying the game of “courtship.” Then, the ensemble of women, taking on a host of male roles — from bumbling servants to the charming, but mean-spirited Petruchio (played by an extraordinary Janet McTeer) — underline the inherent performativity of gender with their gait, vocal tics and ill-fitting suits, played up for subtle comical effect.
This production is not shy about its politics either: halfway through, one of Shakespeare’s “boring” monologues makes way for what is basically a five-minute stand-up set by comedian Judy Gold (in her role as Gremio, a chauvinistic proto-Trump figure), bragging about “his” manhood and complaining about the play’s female director or, worse, a potential female president, drawing cheers from the crowd. And Katherina’s famous concluding submission speech (“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper”) gets a rather obvious, but much deserved, Joan Jett-infused twist.
It’s these smart interventions by director Phyllida Lloyd (a Shakespeare veteran, who previously staged two other all-female productions of his plays) along with its excellent, fun-loving cast that helps uncover pleasures both old and new in one of the Bard’s most popular, but thorny texts.
The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, runs at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 26.