Taming the Heart 

'Bama group battles the Bard

'Bama group battles the Bard

Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew presents a problem for modern audiences, who may be appalled by its dark characterization of the eternal “battle of the sexes.” At heart the play is about a dysfunctional family. For starters, the oldest girl, Kate, handcuffs and beats the living daylights out of her pretty sister, then terrorizes the entire family. The rest of the play revolves around Kate’s forced marriage to an abusive groom who batters, berates, and otherwise maltreats—often quite inventively—his new bride to force her into submission. A yuck a minute, right?

In fact, the audience at TPAC’s Jackson Hall laughed long and loud at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of Shrew, and at one point I joined them till tears came to my eyes. True to Shakespeare, the uproarious Kate and obnoxious Petruchio brawl and bawl energetically, but only as an all-too-apparent evasion of their true feelings. In the heat of one struggle, Kate bites the wrist that immobilizes her, whereupon her gentleman caller casually hefts her over his shoulder ju-jitsu style. They flip over into the most intimate of positions, Kate boldly astride Petruchio and pinning his hands to the floor. That very second, her father and two friends step on stage as goggle-eyed witnesses to this odd love match, apparently accomplished at lightning speed. His hand managing to clap Kate’s mouth shut, Petruchio swears she has accepted his proposal on the condition that in public she be permitted to continue her shrewish ways. So assured, her father consents, heartily glad to be rid of her.

Artistic director Kent Thompson cleverly updates the story from Shakespeare’s era to the 1950s, a time when men were macho and women were pregnant. No doubt about it, Kate the Shrew crosses every boundary known to womankind. If she had been born a guy in Shakespeare’s England or Harriet Nelson’s America, such behavior would have been unremarkable—but for most of Western history, it hasn’t been acceptable for a female to be aggressive, argumentative, forward, loud, opinionated, independent, and way too smart for her own good. To be, in short, a bitch to end all bitches.

Monica Bell plays the role to the hilt in Act One. Unfortunately, she runs out of steam after that and all too quickly caves in. The witty exchanges between the new bride and her groom, consequently, are sapped of their sexual frisson, while her final lecture on how to be a happy hausfrau becomes all the more inexplicable to a modern audience. Bell’s speech merely serves to outline the way she has taken subtle revenge on her pretty young sister. In other words, without having to lay another hand on the girl, she has out-femmed the squeaky twit Bianca (ever-so-aptly played by Kathleen McCall) in a contest of docile submission. A Pyrrhic victory, in my opinion.

The director also changes the locale to the United States. Petruchio is turned into a Texas cowboy, a perfect metaphor for a man who can tame a wild beast. As such, John Preston, in the role of Petruchio, is given latitude to be boorish, rude, and outlandishly eccentric, as well as charismatic. He carries it off in such a way as to blunt the misogyny of the original character. In fact, Preston so dominates the play that the emphasis falls upon the taming rather than upon the shrew herself.

It’s entirely believable that this bronco-buster both rises, with great gusto, to the challenge of taming a shrew and, in the process, loses his heart to a woman of great spirit. During Kate’s final speech, where she makes complete obeisance to male domination on the grounds that it’s every woman’s duty to do so, Preston is visibly moved, his eyes raptly and attentively glued to her face. He swallows hard rather than permitting a tear to come to his eyes, and he rushes to prevent her final humiliation when she kneels to offer her hand for him to step upon. Riding off into the sunset on his motorcycle at the final curtain, Kate elbows him backwards onto the rumble seat, and he roars with obvious delight. In the end, he has tamed his own heart’s wildness as much as hers.

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