Forget those financial and itinerancy problems swirling overhead. The Royal Shakespeare Co. is in high artistic form with a delicious pairing of “The Taming of the Shrew” with John Fletcher’s “The Tamer Tamed.” Both are staged by RSC associate director Gregory Doran with the same cast and minimalist set, visiting here as part of a five-year residency program with the Kennedy Center.
Fletcher’s play is a sequel to the always controversial “Shrew” and was written 20 years later, in 1611. Call it the further adventures of Petruchio, where the infamous abuser gets his just deserts from a second wife who torments him with the same zeal he brought to his first wife. This is the first reported pairing of the plays since 1633.
RSC members Jasper Britton and Alexandria Gilbreath play the principal combatants in both productions. And what a match they are under Doran’s vigorous yet sensitive direction, which deftly engenders empathy for both characters while staying true to the authors’ intentions.
In “Shrew,” sparks fly from the outset as two troubled and tempestuous people quickly determine they need each other. “I’ve known in my time to hear lions roar,” she intones in deep, slow delivery, signaling the game is on. In the play’s final scene, an obedient Kate bows to domination with a wry, knowing smile that speaks volumes. In between is a pitched battle of equals where wrestling matches and hurled objects cover all quadrants of the Eisenhower stage.
For his part, Britton’s Petruchio is a multilayered and fascinating character. Loud, drunk and unpredictable, this is surely no gentleman from Verona. But beneath the shell of blatant chauvinism lies a tormented individual who is far from certain about his unconventional route to marital bliss.
Together, the two are fully in command of Doran’s spirited production. But their performances aren’t the only ones to savor. Polished from its lengthy run in Stratford-upon-Avon, the play is filled with comic touches and satisfying roles. Eve Myles is a sweetly vacuous Bianca being wooed by the trio of eager suitors — Paul Chahidi (Hortensio), Daniel Hawksford (Lucentio) and Christopher Goodwin (an elaborately clad Gremio). Rory Kinnear is enjoyably awkward as the servant Tranio, whose impersonation scheme comes undone.
By contrast, “The Tamer Tamed” is played in an even more animated, comic vein that includes slapstick antics, audience participation and an elaborate musical number. It is some 20 years later; following the death of Katherine, Petruchio marries the meek and submissive Maria. The wedding celebration includes a shower of sympathy for the poor woman’s plight, but she quickly turns the tables.
With assistance of her younger sister (Eve Myles) and the town’s milkmaids, Maria locks her bedroom door and from the balcony begins issuing demands to her increasingly frustrated husband. Amid several plot twists and elaborate silliness, chaos reigns in Padua.
Fletcher’s script clearly plays second fiddle to Shakespeare’s, but the absorbing production stands as a refreshing complement to its companion, one mounted with exceeding care. Its highlights include an infectious dance number and more precise performances by the two leads and supporting cast. Britton is a pitiable picture of exasperation, a fitting foil to Gilbreath’s high-spirited determination.
The set by Stephen Brimson Lewis is a sparse village scene dominated by movable doors and a prominent bridge, both effective in letting the action flow. Stephanie Arditti’s costumes are elaborate only when they need to be, while Paul Englishby’s delightful period music is offered by a small onstage orchestra.