A company of women under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) romps through a subversive version of “The Taming of the Shrew” that takes some of the sting out of Shakespeare’s misogynist comedy. Led by Cush Jumbo (“The Good Wife”) as the hoydenish Kate and Janet McTeer (“Mary Stuart”) as the woman-taming Petruchio, the all-femme cast runs a bit wild in mocking the ways of men and the wiles of women. But is this first summer production by Free Shakespeare in the Park gorgeously giddy — or just goofy?
Directors normally take their lives in their hands by staging “Shrew,” with its jaunty how-to plot about bringing a high-spirited, independent woman to heel. Even actresses who survive the indignity of being “tamed” tend to choke on Kate’s final lecture to the ladies in the audience on the proper deferential behavior of a dutiful wife.
Casting women in both male and female roles (as Lloyd has done with earlier productions of “Julius Caesar” and “Henry IV“) makes smart use of satire to cut through this awkwardness by allowing women to mock the male characters they inhabit. Rather than presenting realistic performances of masculine physical swagger and patriarchal political bluster, the disdainful actresses are gleefully sending the guys up.
Leading up to Kate’s humiliating capitulation, the play presents a quick-witted study of a rich man’s clever and willful elder daughter, Katherine (the vivacious Jumbo), who refuses to entertain the thought of marriage. Not that any of the local dolts are man enough for her, anyway. Their clear preference is for a conventionally lovely and pliant woman like her younger sister, Bianca, played by the fetching Gayle Rankin, a vision in golden sausage curls, delivering a merry parody of this adorable ninny.
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In typical Shakespearean fashion, the plot turns on duplicity and disguise for its broad physical comedy. Faithful servants are called upon to play their own masters so their masters can liberate themselves by assuming menial roles. In this manner, Adrienne C. Moore’s witty trickster, Tranio, pretends to be his master, Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore), while this youth gains access to Bianca by impersonating an impoverished tutor. Only Kate and her cynical suitor, Petruchio (the renowned classical actor McTeer, having the time of her life), unapologetically are what they are — natural enemies and destined lovers.
Jumbo has plenty of spirit as Kate, and some of the comic fools (like Donna Lynne Champlin’s Hortensio) are funny, but McTeer steals the show with her deliciously camp treatment of Petruchio. Standing 6′ 1″ and cigarette-slim, McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”) has the lean and lanky look of a sexy bad boy who dropped out of high school after getting half the sophomore girls pregnant. Grabbing her crotch and sticking out her tongue, she struts across the stage in her grungy studded leathers and battered cowboy hat (credit designer Mark Thompson for locally shopping these items), flaunting her biker-dude persona and daring Kate to resist his/her punk charms.
A hint of roughness about Petruchio’s “taming” of his bride (the pink handcuffs are a cute touch) lends a soupcon of sado-masochism to McTeer’s bad boy impersonation. But it’s a theme that fails to work its way into the production style, which is all over the map.
The show opens promisingly with an over-the-top Miss Lombardy beauty pageant. “One of these girls is going to take home a huuuuge prize,” the contest organizer informs us, in the unmistakable accents of The Donald. “I mean, it’s unbelievable!” But once Miss Mantua has twirled her batons and Miss Padua has sung her heart out (“like a beautiful caged bird”), that theme flies out the window, too.
And why Thompson’s set is done up like a raggedy carnival is anyone’s guess. There are no animal acts, aerialists, or bareback riders on stage, and no one is made up to be a clown. Unless The Donald counts.