Reviews: The Taming of the Shrew

CRITIC’S PICK: The Taming of the Shrew (at the Duke on 42nd Street through April 21)


April 6, 2012

With detectably elevated esprit de corps, the cast of director Arin Arbus’s delightful new Shrew (from Theatre for a New Audience) romps around a frontiersville set in hoop skirts and bowlers — but don’t for a minute mistake this for one of those tiresome “concept Shakespeare” productions. The point isn’t oaty accents or silly costumes: It’s to replant one of the Bard’s more troublesome comedies (by modern standards of gender parity) in an edge-of-the-world milieu, where the light S&M interplay of volatile, irrepressible Kate (Mad Men’s Maggie Siff) and head-gaming mock-patriarch Petruchio (Cymbeline’s Andy Groteleuschen) feels more like a subversive goof on convention than the iron-fisted upholding of it that George Bernard Shaw famously denounced. (Arbus also wisely preserves Shakespeare’s “Induction,” which firmly establishes the artificiality and untrustworthiness of the “message” play we’re about to see.)

Siff and Groteleuschen, both comic grandmasters with real sexual magnetism, are about as perfect a pairing as can be expected in this life: She’s a head-on duelist; he’s a parrying jester. The terms of their strange truce are never made entirely clear — is Kate truly “tamed,” leashed to the will of her mad-in-craft husband? Or does the game go on, perhaps in precincts where we’re not invited? Mystery is chemistry, and Arbus isn’t interested in affixing an easy answer to her production. She’s more interested in the funny-ugly, catastrophic mechanics of the piece. She’s assisted by such comic pros as John Pankow, Saxon Palmer, and John Christopher Jones, whose droopy pantaloon Gremio is a highlight. Another score: The score, a brilliantly assimilated period collage, assembled by puckish history-in-a-blender composer J. Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson).  —New York Magazine

‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ at the Duke on 42nd Street
A Shakespeare Play Set Where the Buffalo Roam


April 3, 2012

The Wild West makes a suitable setting for the brawling romance at the center of “The Taming of the Shrew” in theTheater for a New Audience production at the Duke on 42nd Street. Transplanting Shakespeare comedies to the land of gunslingers and tumbleweeds has become something of a commonplace, it’s true, but this lively production, directed by Arin Arbus (who directed the excellent renditions of “Othello” and “Macbeth” for the same company), treads lightly on conceptual gimmickry and features a frisky dustup between Maggie Siff and Andy Grotelueschen as the pecking lovebirds Kate and Petruchio.

On a handsome set of weathered-looking wood, designed by Donyale Werle, the production opens with the framing device, often dropped, in which a soused tinker, Christopher Sly (Matthew Cowles), is duped into believing he’s a rich lord. The comedy proper is performed for his entertainment, with a saloon piano player (Jonathan Mastro) punctuating the proceedings. (Michael Friedman has provided the incidental music and arrangements.)

Shakespeare himself dropped the frame immediately after this prologue, but Ms. Arbus’s production interpolates a few lines from the anonymously published 1594 play “The Taming of a Shrew” that continue the device, allowing us a few more glimpses of Mr. Cowles’s pungently funny turn.

Mr. Grotelueschen is not the matinee idol, exuding gleaming virility, often cast as the wife tamer. With a nimbus of frizzy curls and a matching red beard, he’s a big, burly teddy bear of a man whose portrayal accentuates Petruchio’s ribald wit and lusty appetite for combat, both intellectual and physical.

But his Petruchio is also uncommonly reflective, and the natural ease with which he handles Shakespeare’s verse brings him into an easy intimacy with the audience. We are made to understand that behind Petruchio’s sometimes brutish behavior is a keen mind using both humor and a measure of insight to tease out Kate’s gentle humanity.

This humanity is faintly glimpsed beneath the familiar veneer of spite, even in Kate’s first scene. Ms. Siff, who appeared in the first season of “Mad Men” as the department store heiress with whom Jon Hamm’s character has an affair, storms the stage, braying her lines at top volume.

But the eardrum busting, which gradually subsides as Kate’s vulnerable heart is pried open, is an emotional steam valve. Ms. Siff’s darting, wounded looks make it apparent that Kate’s choleric nature derives pretty clearly from a single source: she feels unloved by a father who dotes on her sister, and the hostile face she shows the world masks a neglected heart starved for affection.

When Petruchio’s antic charm offensive meets Kate’s well-manned defenses, the combustion makes for a lively scene of cutting gibes and scornful retorts that is taken at a galloping clip. Both combatants feed off each other’s ferocious energy, recognizing a match for their stinging wits. Beneath Kate’s antagonism is an intrigued interest in this man who looks and acts like no other in her orbit and greets her most savage taunts with a jovial imperviousness that disarms, and eventually unarms, her.

The play’s secondary romantic subplot, which takes up about as much stage time as the more celebrated story of the title, features some strong comic playing. John Christopher Jones is an amusingly doddering Gremio, one of the suitors for Bianca, Kate’s sister. Saxon Palmer, as his rival suitor Hortensio, in disguise as a music teacher, harvests more honest laughs than you’d imagine with his absurd comic accent and a mustache that won’t stay put. As Tranio, the servant to Lucentio (Denis Butkus), yet another of Bianca’s would-be husbands, John Keating uses his lanky frame and expressive comic face to expert effect.

Bianca, the cynosure of all this farcical attention, is portrayed by Kathryn Saffell with an air of mild imperiousness. Her warm beauty and her father’s doting attentions have obviously prepared her to expect frequent homage from the male sex. When, in the play’s climactic scene, Bianca ignores the request for her appearance by her new husband, Lucentio, it comes as no surprise; she’s had the upper hand all along and is not about to relinquish it.

This culminating scene will forever be a challenge for both actors and audiences. The speech in which Kate calls on wives dutifully to “place your hands below your husband’s foot” remains hard to reconcile with any rational view of equality between the sexes. Ms. Arbus softens the sting by having Petruchio fall to one knee opposite the kneeling Kate to kiss her proffered hand, suggesting that the love between them is a love between equals.

But the knowing smiles and bursts of laughter with which Ms. Siff seasons her delivery of the monologue also suggest that her submission may be just another in the series of provoking poses exchanged between Kate and Petruchio. The war games may continue.” —The New York Times

The Taming of the Shrew

Because Shakespeare’s early comedy is a play within a play—it’s being performed by a travelling troupe—the layers of deception and double-dealing are magnified. Arin Arbus, the director of this lively, intelligent, and very funny new production by the Theatre for a New Audience, sets the action in a nineteenth-century barroom in the American West (complete with excellent saloon-style piano playing by Jonathan Mastro). Led by strong work from Andy Grotelueschen (as Petruchio) and Maggie Siff (as Katharina), the company members fling themselves into the high-spirited machinations of love, power, and economics. As for selling the play’s “happy ending”—Kate’s submission to her new husband’s will after what can be seen as a period of physical and mental torture—Arbus and her leads have come up with a clever strategy that may not fully jibe with the text but that leads to a satisfying and moving conclusion. — The New Yorker

Review: ‘Shrew’ is a fresh take on age-old battle


April 3, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) ­ The battle of the sexes is waged anew as “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare enjoys a fresh, robust off-Broadway presentation by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke on 42nd Street.

The well-matched pair Maggie Siff (“Sons of Anarchy” and “Mad Men”) and Andy Grotelueschen (“Cymbeline”) play the famously arguing newlyweds, Kate and Petruchio. Siff and Grotelueschen have the comedic chops and the magnetism to make this a vibrant “Shrew” despite the difficulty of presenting the material to a modern, post-feminism audience.

Despite being written in a time when women truly were, as Petruchio calculatedly proclaims after his wedding, “my chattel,” director Arin Arbus has carefully staged the play with an eye toward Shakespeare’s possible original emancipating intent, while mindful of the rise of feminism.

In this undated theater image released by The Bruce Cohen Group, Ltd., Maggie Siff , left, and Andy Grotelueschen are shown during a performance
of “The Taming of the Shrew,’” currently performing off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York.
(AP Photo, Bruce Cohen Group Ltd, Henry Grossman)

Arbus has also cleverly set the production in the American West, thereby eliminating the expectation of British accents: A troupe of American actors is putting on the play as they travel the frontier in the late 1800s.

Donyale Werle’s colorful, multi-level, rustic wooden set nicely backgrounds the action as the battle of the sexes erupts onstage. From the onset, the men all conspire and use disguises or false identities to achieve their desired goals. The two sisters at the heart of the play can’t resort to disguise, so the older one, Kate, expresses her disgust at being bartered for marriage by using ill-tempered rhetoric and tantrums to fend off any possible suitors.

Siff is both comical and irate as “the shrew.” Far from portraying just a tantrum-prone, ill-tempered woman, Siff adds subtle colorations to her portrayal of Kate, by turns sullen, angry, conniving, bewildered and finally bemused by her new husband’s unusual approach.

Kate’s outspoken rudeness blocks the prospects for marriage for her attractive, docile and desirable younger sister, Bianca (played as both sweet and petulant by Kathryn Saffell, in her off-Broadway debut), as custom dictates that the elder sister must be married off first. Robert Langdon Lloyd is amiably wily as their wheeler-dealer father, Baptista.

Grotelueschen is a masterful buffoon, and his lusty yet nuanced Petruchio is a work of art. Despite his clownish behavior, Grotelueschen makes it clear that Petruchio feels Kate is a woman worth conquering, but to ultimately enjoy as an equal partner.

The large and assured cast includes John Keating, lending his unique twist to the part of servant Tranio, while Denis Butkus is youthfully confident as Lucentio, a lately arrived suitor for Bianca’s hand. Lucentio schemes mightily to obtain Bianca from his game adversaries, elderly Gremio (John Christopher Jones) and the nervous Hortensio (Saxon Palmer.) John Pankow is memorably grumpy as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, and veteran actress Olwen Fouere lends dignity to a couple of small roles and a rowdy song about being a stood-up bride.

By the time Petruchio has “tamed” Kate, treating her much like a prisoner of war with starvation and sleeplessness, she has come to realize that he’s a clever man worth being her partner in life. Her final lengthy speech, a public tribute to the superiority of her husband, is often criticized for being degrading to her formerly fierce, independent personality.

But as noted in the program and as presented with touches of irony by Siff, the speech can also be regarded as a sign of public respect by Kate toward her husband, a continuation of the hard-fought (literally), mutual admiration the pair have achieved.

The cast is decked out in a bevy of colorfully patterned and textured costumes by Anita Yavich. Michael Friedman’s multifarious musical accompaniment is conveyed with enthusiasm by pianist Jonathan Mastro. In the end, both Kate and Petruchio appear to be well-pleased with their match, fulfilling Petruchio’s early prophecy, “And where two raging fires meet together/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.”— The Associated Press

The Taming of the Shrew


April 2, 2012

Arin Arbus certainly has a way with William Shakespeare, as she’s previously proven with her first-rate productions of OthelloMacbeth andMeasure for Measure. Now she gives us a downright rib-tickling The Taming of the Shrew, now being presented by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke on 42nd Street.

Faced with a sometimes problematic work for modern audiences, Arbus has wisely cast a troupe of genuinely amusing comic actors — and having guessed them up in Anita Yavich’s wild Wild-West costumes on Donyale Werle’s all-wooden saloon set — presents them almost as if they’re clowns emerging from a circus car.

For this go-round, Petruchio (Andy Grotelueschen) comes to now-Westernized Padua looking to “wive it weathily” and fixes his intentions on Katharina Minola (Maggie Siff), whose reputation for being a bundle of ignited dynamite precedes her and whose disinclination to marry means much-pursued younger and sweeter sister Bianca (Kathryn Saffell) has to wait her turn for who-knows-how-long. While various shenanigans are set in motion by secondary figures, Petruchio goes about putting things right.

Last seen playing both hero and villain in the Fiasco company’s Cymbeline, the superb Grotelueschen is much more effective here and gives evidence he’s a homegrown Shakespearean with a big future. A decidedly substantial-looking fellow — bearded with a bald spot in his hair that blows about like tumbleweed — Grotelueschen takes command by dint of his complete affability. He speaks the poetry so naturally, it seems as if he’s expressed himself this way from birth.

Giving this Petruchio almost as good–or as bad–as she gets, Siff has the kind of piercing eyes that make men cower at the sight of her. Equally importantly, she’s convincing as a woman who saves time by throwing the hems of her clothes over her shoulder and climbing ladders to get where she wants to be.

If anything decelerates Siff’s performance, it’s that she allows herself to be tamed earlier than is the usual instance (a situation which may be traceable to dialogue-trimming). On the other hand, when she finally admits she’s “ashamed that women are so simple,” she does it with a tone that says she realizes feigning submission is the path to domination, or equality.

Moreover, supporting players Saxon Palmer, John Christopher Jones, John Pankow, Peter Maloney, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Denis Butkus, and John Keating each find one moment to stand out, while Mattew Cowles does quite well as drunken tinker Christopher Sly, whom the troupe of traveling thespians — Shrew is really a play within a play — convince that he’s a lord watching a performance staged for his pleasure.

Indeed, Arbus gets additional laughs by having the cast members josh dated acting styles and, more pointedly with the touchy subject matter, distancing from present-day attitudes Shakespeare’s message about women putting a hand under their man’s foot. She’s a sly one, for sure. —Theatremania

‘Shrew’ mastered by a powerful Kate

April 2, 2012
Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” has such a bad rep that this new production’s program is full of scholarly quotes that basically say, hey, it’s really not as chauvinistic as everybody thinks it is!

The problem’s obvious: The plot revolves around a headstrong woman, Katharina, being broken down into submission by her new husband, Petruchio — who initially married her for the dowry. This is the original romantic comedy, where the woman is humbled by the jerk and falls for him.

Yet this Theatre for a New Audience production, directed by Arin Arbus, makes a convincing argument for the delicious shrewdness of “Shrew.” And that’s because Maggie Siff and Andy Grotelueschen (late of the company’s “Cymbeline”) make a convincing argument for Kate and Petruchio as a pairing of equals.

This “Shrew” manages to find the funny in Shakespeare’s tricky romantic comedy with a nuanced Kate from Maggie Siff and Andy Grotelueschen as her domineering husband, Petruchio.

Siff, who played the department-store heiress of “Mad Men” (she’s currently on “Sons of Anarchy”), finds nuances even at the beginning, when Kate’s a mere barbed-tongue “fiend of hell.” Hurt briefly shadows her face when their father showers her younger sister Bianca (Kathryn Saffell) with love — and then it’s back to throwing chairs.

Petruchio sees through Kate’s shtick right away. He just needs to make her understand that they’re potential partners in crime, not adversaries. So he gives her a taste of her own medicine, making her realize that she can fight back at the world with wit and smarts, not unrestrained aggro.

The rest of Arbus’ production isn’t on the same perceptive high level.

For some reason, she’s placed the action in a 19th-century American frontier town. You’d expect entertaining petticoat dysfunction, or at least a battle of cowboys versus harridans, but the locale is completely underused. At least Donyale Werle created a nice wooden set, full of nooks and crannies — at one point Siff throws her skirt over her shoulder to climb a ladder.

The supporting cast is serviceable, though the very funny Saxon Palmer gets high marks as Bianca’s suitor Hortensio, endowed with a rake’s pencil-thin mustache.

But really, the show’s all about the central mismatched pair, and how much we find ourselves rooting for them. Hollywood could learn a lot from how this romance is handled.  The New York Post

Review Quotes

“Crackles with contemporary verve… popping and alive … with a happy ending a hard-line supporter of women’s rights might even appreciate.” —  The L Magazine

“With one daring leap, Theatre for a New Audience’s The Taming of the Shrew takes us back to the American frontier of the late 19th century, and gives Shakespeare’s knockabout farce a fresh pioneer spirit.  There’s no doubt that the entire ensemble feels at ease with Shakespeare’s language. Equally important is their boundless enthusiasm.” — CurtainUp

“Rollicking! Enterprising director, Arin Arbus, and her cast have great fun.”  — 

“With the success of both this adaption and his recent wonderful Macbeth, Theatre for a New Audience has a real treasure in their hands with Arbus.  One that I hope stays around for quite a few more dozen Shakespearean journeys.” — The Artswire

CLICK HERE to listen to director Arin Arbus and composer Michael Friedman discuss their collaboration on The Taming of the Shrew on WNYC radio. Features discussion about the play, and a live performance of music from the show by John Pankow, Olwen Fouéré, John Christopher Jones, Peter Maloney and Jonathan Mastro (piano).