THE TAMING OF THE SHREW -- At the Folger through May 25.
There is this, ah, problem with "The Taming of the Shrew," a comedy by William Shakespeare. And the Folger Theater Group has come up with an interesting way of helping him out of his difficulty.
The problem is that the theme of the independent wife who has to be subdued into docile obedience might possibly be considered, by some persons, to be somewhat, well, objectionable. One could go so far as to interpret the husband's declaration that "She is my goods, my chattels . . . my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything" as, shall we say, sexist.
In dramatic terms, the danger is not so much of injured sensibilities as damaged comedy. Literature can contain all kinds of unfashionable premises and still be effective. But an issue that is currently raw cannot be treated with the same type of humor as one that has passed into harmless mythology; take-my-wife -- please jokes are not surefire material at the moment.
What the Folger production has done is to define shrewishness as being more a sort of unisex crankiness than female willfulness. As Katherina, Ellen Newman retains her high spirits throughout the taming program. She merely comes to realize, under Petruchio's direction, that it's hard work to be peevish alone, but delicious to be a partner in his more inventive naughtiness. A sexy air of conspiracy sparkles between them as they exaggerate the marital conventions at the expense of others. Her last speech, about the wife's place being below her husband's foot, is delivered with a mischievousness that her husband alone appreciates.
The approach is underscored when John Neville-Andrews, as Petruchio, raises her from her knees and then kneels before her. It's a clever solution that can claim to be inspired by Shakespeare himself, who has Petruchio say, when it's a lie, that he and Katherina have a bargain about behaving differently privately than in public. The actors and director, Roger Hendricks Simon, deserve great credit for this ingenuity.
But this should not have tempted Simon to believe that Shakespeare therefore needed help with other aspects of his play. The central interpretation and the boisteous staging, spilling over into aisles and balcony, are within the scope of a production. The wonderfully silly comedy of Floyd King as Chrisotpher Sly, and of David Cromwell, Brian Kale and Jim Beard, representing the Shakespearean servant problem, also legitimate enhancements.
But Simon got carried away when he decided to add obscene meanings where none were intended -- as if Shakespeare didn't know how to supply salaciousness when he wanted to.
The first meeting between Katherina and Petruchio is plenty dirty as written. Having a pseudo-rape, and making her point at his crotch when she calls him withered only changes the double-entendres into single ones. Nor is it wittier to have the servant Curtis played as a woman, instead of a man, so that the pun about hearing a tale and feeling one can be accompanied by a grab instead of a smack.
Just because some aspects of the male-female relationship have changed since Shakespeare wrote this play, it doesn't mean they all did.