- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

What is immediately striking about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is how interested everyone looks. All the actors, even those portraying servants, appear to be raptly listening to their fellow cast members. None of those vacant stares or actors marking time between lines that Washington theatergoers have experienced of late.

Even the musicians seemed interested in what was occurring on the stage below their orchestra platform.

This level of discipline and devotion is what sets the RSC apart and is one of the myriad joys of its production of Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes comedy under the astute direction of Gregory Doran. From the first glimpse of the set, an endless series of weathered doors of various architectural types, to the zesty Celtic music and the impassioned performances, this is one “Shrew” you won’t mind spending time with.

Running in repertory with “Shrew” is John Fletcher’s “The Tamer Tamed,” a sequel written in 1611. It is the first time the plays have been paired in 370 years, and it’s high time.

“The Taming of the Shrew” centers on the pacifying of Katherine (Alexandra Gilbreath), who is, quite simply, a handful. Her hands are perpetually balled into fists like the schoolyard bully, her voice never goes below a bellow. For the daughter of a rich citizen of Padua, Baptista Minola (Ian Gelder), Katherine has more than a touch of the fishwife about her.

In contrast, her younger sister Bianca (Eve Myles), is a pretty milksop, a spoiled beauty who tends to dissolve into tears when things don’t go her way. Bianca is ardently courted by Hortensio (Paul Chahidi), Gremio (Christopher Godwin) and Lucentio (Daniel Hawksford), but Baptista won’t let her marry until someone takes Katherine off his hands.

That someone is Petruchio (Jasper Britton), a mellow tippler who seems more Falstaff than Romeo. In order to maintain his life of pleasure, Petruchio needs to find a wife with a large dowry. Katherine fits the bill in the financial department — so what’s a little ill temper? Petruchio gamely undertakes to woo a woman others call “a fiend of hell.” Who will win, the feral Katherine or the Rabelaisan Petruchio? In the first round he gains the upper hand by tickling her feet, a delectable scene.

Petruchio senses that the way to Katherine’s heart is to pay attention to her, since she is wildly jealous of the younger, prettier sister who commandeered their father’s affections. Of course, Petruchio takes his plan to extremes as he brainwashes Katherine by denying her food, sleep and other creature comforts.

Petruchio’s methods of making Katherine obedient are the hardest part of the play to digest for modern audiences, since it seems cruel, even abusive.

It might have been easier to swallow if Mr. Britton’s Petruchio had continued to exhibit throughout some of the vulnerability and playfulness he showed in the beginning, when still questioning his decision to take on Katherine.

In the second act, Petruchio is so bent on breaking the spirit of his new wife that he seems transformed. Miss Gilbreath’s portrayal of a harridan who becomes a hausfrau is more convincing — her ordeal would crack anybody — and there is an element of triumph in it because, in the end, Katherine is still prickly, still proud, still strident, just not violent and self-destructive.

Torturing a woman into submission may not sound like the stuff of comedy, but “Taming of the Shrew” is quite funny. Much of the humor stems from mocking Katherine’s disposition (“there is small choice in rotten apples,” one character remarks) and in the various lovers’ lame attempts to romance Bianca. Mr. Godwin’s portrayal of the geezer, Gremio, is particularly fine, as he plays an old man in love with a canny mixture of youthful longing and mature sagacity.

The play gets off to a strong start with a staple of Shakespearean comedy: identity switching. Hearing that Bianca’s father is looking for tutors, one of the suitors, Lucentio, disguises himself as the schoolmaster Cambio, while his valet (Rory Kinnear) takes on the guise of his noble master. Mr. Kinnear is a scene-stealer as he attempts to get used to the high-heeled shoes, ornate language, and elegant carriage of the ruling class.

“Shrew” bogs down in the overlong first act, but that is due more to the play than the players, who are excellent throughout. The comedy regains its lively insolence in the second act, especially near the end at a wedding feast that is upstaged by the mad electricity between Petruchio and Katherine.

Is the “Shrew” tamed for good? This production definitively says “yes” and makes a strong, delectable case that Katherine is better off as a result of Petruchio’s brand of anger management.

***

WHAT: “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Running in repertory with “The Tamer Tamed” through Jan. 4.

TICKETS: $25 to 75

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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