By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Andrei Serban
American Repertory Theatre
At the Loeb Drama Center, in repertory through March, 1998

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton
Andrei Serban’s production of The Taming of the Shrew for the American Repertory Theatre was a three ring circus. Besides using the extended version of the Induction that frames the “Shrew” performance as a hoax played on a drunken lout named Christopher Sly (Harry S. Murphy), Serban interpolated a dumb show reference to the ART company on tour that came complete with a full size tractor-trailor crammed with in jokes, and threw in chunks of “Kiss Me Kate" for good measure. Paragraphs of tedious Shakespearean exposition were jettisoned, to be replaced by punch line pop culture “quotations” and celebrity imitations. Clever costuming and brilliant notions abounded, no aspect of the play being deemed too minor to support ironic contradiction and commentary.

The result of this comic deconstruction was a nearly three hour “Shrew” that circled in on itself, a tale chase that devolved from entertainment to exhaustion, leaving some outrageous images behind: Robert Brustein, playing himself as the ART’s head mucky muck, accepting a briefcase full of what is presumably drug money from a gangsta Lord, played by one of the ART’s Institute few Black graduates, Dmetrius Conley-Williams. Unstylishly stout Remo Airaldi in Felliniesque drag, vamping Harry Murphey’s Sly with a vulgarity that would make Irma Vep blush; tiny Kristin Flanders as Kate in a bright red body suit cum whip, looking like a cross between the devil and Catwoman, her first encounter with Don Reilly’s studly Petruchio staged as a boxing/wrestling match in a literal ring, and followed by a wedding scene where Kate wore a white tux and her groom a taffeta bridal dress and filmy veil; the supporting actresses of the ART company, with no more than a dozen or so lines between them, all dolled up in Catherine Zuber’s spectacular costumes, pacing the periphery of designer Christine Jones’ playing space trying to look as if they had somewhere to go; Carolyn Hall’s Bianca as a pink haired porno queen, playing sadomasochistic sex games with Scott Harrison’s Lucentio; the huge cast sitting in a circle miming impatience that is nothing compared to the impatience of the audience while a clown messenger runs all the way around the outside of the auditorium to give the wives their husbands’ summons and report back their refusal to obey.

Shakespeare’s “The Taming of The Shrew” is patriarchal propaganda, with a fundamentalist moral. Upwardly mobile Petruchio sweeps into marriage a richly dowered but notoriously intractable woman because he believes he can use the power that nature and law give a husband to tame any woman and make her a comfortable, conforming wife. Petruchio already has this kind of power over his servants, and in his first scene beats his servant Grumio for trying to get away with observing the letter rather than the spirit of his master’s commands. Later in the play Petruchio enlists his house servants in his plan to terrorize Kate into obedience. He bullies and roars and pretends to brutalize them, and his servants -- in Serban’s production, men gussied up like the glamorous housewives on TV ads in the fifties, teetering on high heels and armed with feather dusters and brooms -- play along to help him put his wife in her place. When Kate gives in and plays the role assigned her, Petruchio praises her, trusts her, rewards her; and most wonderfully, Kate wins her father’s love too-- Daddy (like Lear) doubles her dowry. While Petruchio’s assertion of authority succeeds, his friend Hortensio (Jason Weinburg), who woos the shrew’s outwardly docile sister Bianca with subterfuge and flattery, not only loses his preferred love object to a wealthier suitor, but ends up married to a self-willed widow (Danielle Delgado) who publicly humiliates him. In Serban's "Shrew", you can’t follow this plot -- even though the director insists in his notes that this IS the plot, and that modern interpretations that show Kate play-acting her surrender in collusion with a loving husband, or, conversely, peg Petruchio as a tyrant and Kate as his battered and brainwashed victim, are wrongheaded. However much we libertarian individualists may agree with Kate when she insists:
“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart 
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break, 
And rather than it shall, I will be free 
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words”
--- Shakespeare held his mirror up to domestic and political hierarchy and called it Nature. We moderns may not like it, but we can’t have his plot and lump it too. So the unacceptable plot is abandoned, and the performance becomes play for the sake of play, a series of variations on the theme of identity -- including but not by any means exclusively gender identity. In a frenzy of liberte, equalite, fraternite, all the actors are cut loose from history and circumstance and encouraged to express themselves in multiple personalities and maximal vaudeville stunts, until servants and masters, males and females, Gremios and Grumios blur into one another. Petruchio alone is impervious to these permutations. He has an objective, everything he does is at the service of that objective until he achieves it: so it’s his show.

At this moment, as the repressed unacceptable plot reasserts itself, Serban has a last series of inspirations. As Flanders recites the climax of Katharina's subordination speech, she suits the action to the word by dropping to her knees and groveling, her open hand stretched out on the ground before her husband foot in perfect self-abasement. After a moment for the shock of it to sink in, Reilly's Petruchio kneels, too, and mirrors Kate’s submissive gesture. Equality --almost. A moment later, Reilly-Petruchio gives Kate a share of the money he won betting on her obedience. Back to the frame, and clueless Christopher Sly, who has extracted a lesson from the “Shrew” show. Sly’s going to go home and tame his own long suffering wife. Finally, Reilly-playing-the-ART-actor-who-plays-Petruchio bids a casual good bye to Flanders-playing-the-ART-actor-playing-Kate, and they go their separate ways, their arms entwined with those of their off-stage same-sex lovers. That’s it--- that’s where we are now. Exhausted, dysfunctional, dancing on the ruins of the Marriage Plot.