Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre returned to White River State Park with its staging of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”—known to certain audiences as “The play that the movie ’10 Things I Hate About You’ is based on."
It’s also known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”
What’s the problem?
Well, for all of its sharply drawn characters, its wonderful wordplay, and its opportunities for raucous physical humor, “Shrew” remains a play about a man who “tames” a spirited young woman using methods that wouldn’t be out of place in the opening scenes of “Zero Dark Thirty.” If Petruchio knew about water boarding, he might have given it a shot to help get Katherine under his control.
How did HART's production fare?
Here’s 10 things I liked—and didn’t like—about it.
Let’s start with the likes:
1. The setting and the simplicity of the staging. No backdrop could evoke the play’s Italian setting better than the bridge over the White River at sunset. Gorgeous.
2. The costumes. When you have minimal staging and the sun still out for Act One and then some (thank you, Daylight Savings Time), costumes are key in helping keep the focus.
3. Lisa Ermel’s youthful playing of the lead. While Katherine’s age isn’t specified by Shakespeare, the more mature the character is, the tougher it is to buy her actions. Ermel captured the complex confusion of young woman used to controlling situations through outrageous behavior, suddenly thrust into an arranged marriage with a man she knows she can’t physically defeat.
4. Ryan Artzberger’s handling of the “He that knows better how to tame a shrew” soliloquy. What could be an arrogant boast instead, through Artzberger’s Petruchio, becomes a revealing moment from a confused man in love who wishes he could think of another way to handle the matter.
5. Eddie Curry performing outside of Beef & Boards. One of the pleasures of HART’s summer Shakespeare is that it draws talent from other professional companies. It’s rare to see Curry outside of his home base, where he keeps very busy. Here, he engaged but never upstaged as Gremio, suitor of Katherine’s sister Bianca.
6. The tableau of the final scene. The final scene is the toughest to stomach as Katherine rationalizes her fate and instruct women on how to defer to men—even going so far as to put herself below Petruchio’s boot. Visually, though, the scene is sumptuous and beautifully staged by director Michael Shelton, giving the dinner scene a warmth that helps make the text almost palatable.
7. The live music. A student ensemble played period music before—and during—the play, including being addressed directly by an actor in one of the play’s funnier moments.
8. The crowd. There’s something joyful about an evening when more than a thousand people are gathered for a play.
And the problems:
9. Sound. Sound. Sound. Sound. Sound. With frequent mic drop outs, pops, and buzzes, tech was a near-constant distraction. Friday was bad, making me pity those further back then myself who had to struggle to hear when amplification failed. I returned on Saturday for a bit of the first act to see if the situation had improved. Better, yes. Good, no.
10. “Shrew” itself. In these enlightened times—times where most of us have trouble rejoicing in the humiliation and subjugation of women—a variety of efforts have been made to make the show palatable. Chicago Shakespeare commissioned playwright Neil LaBute to add backstage scenes where the actors play actors wrestling with the show’s issues. In London, the Royal Shakespeare Company paired ‘Shrew’ with John Fletcher’s table-turning sequel “The Tamer Tamed” (which was written in Shakespeare’s lifetime). Other productions include the usually cut early “Shrew” scenes in which the whole story is presented as a play-within-a-play, mitigating some of the apparent misogyny.
Still others make efforts to show that Petruchio and Katherine are somehow playing a game with each other and that there really is true love between these semi-equals.
Some productions simply take the play at face value, arguing that Shakespeare wasn’t writing lessons for living. Instead, he wrote a farce set in a particular historical period.
HART’s version doesn’t seem to have a particular take on the matter. As such, it avoids pretention, apology, and preachiness. But it also doesn’t do much to mitigate the feeling that we’ve just witnessed a celebration of submissiveness.