Actors save multi-faceted ‘Shrew’ tale

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Wednesday February 21, 2001

Because it is a slapstick comedy about a man who tortures his wife until she becomes subservient to his every whim, Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” is a difficult play for modern audiences. 

When the play is produced, directors put much thought and energy into finding ways to reinterpret this problematic tale so that it is meaningful for modern audiences. 

UC Berkeley’s Department of Dramatic Art/Center for Theater Arts is taking a stab at it with a world premiere reworking of the story called “Shrew You!,” which opened Friday at Zellerbach Playhouse on the Cal campus. 

This gay reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s play, with S&M overtones, was adapted and directed by Reid Davis, and developed collaboratively through workshops and rehearsals with Cal actors. 

The end result is an impressive technical product. The company has come up with a lively, athletic production, using a commedia dell’arte-influenced playing style. The quality of the acting in this student production is terrific, and Davis’ direction and choreography are strong.  

But the evening gets lost in the murky uncertainties of “Shrew You’s” story. The play tries to cover too much ground, and force interpretations that aren’t in the script. It ends up feeling more like an academic exercise, or a theater class project, than a finished performance concept for a general audience. 

In “Shrew You!,” genders have been swapped in much of the casting. Men play women, and women play men.  

Three of the play’s key roles are performed by two actors each, one man and one woman. There are a male and female Kate the shrew, a male and female shrew-tamer Petruchio, and a male and female Grumio (Petruchio’s servant). 

The gay theme is set early. At the play’s beginning, Petruchio and his male friend Hortensio are shown having sex – rather wild, violent sex. Their love-making verges on a rape, of sorts, by Petruchio. 

By casting two Petruchios, two Kates and two Grumios, the company can put multiple versions of the same scene on stage at the same time. 

For example, one Kate and one Petruchio might play a given scene with wild sexual emphasis, while the other Kate and the other Petruchio might play the same scene quietly. 

Elsewhere, a scene might be played on a literal level by one actor, but with self-conscious awareness by a different actor. 

Although these techniques can provide meaningful discoveries for actors working on a script, for an audience “Shrew You!” ends up waffling around in its story and doesn’t manage to make a clear statement after three hours of playing time. 

Also, if you do not know the play beforehand, there are places where this production will be confusing. In some spots, the multiple casting devices are hard to follow. In other places, actors suddenly switch to entirely different characters without warning or explanation. Someone who doesn’t know the play will be baffled. 

Kate’s famous subservience speech at the play’s end, done tongue-in-cheek in this production, seems contrived and tacked on to the story, rather than emerging from what has happened before. 

And in “Shrew You!’s” final scene celebrating gay love, adaptor Davis has shoehorned into the story a twist that doesn’t fit well. The actors display much comic, stylized movement and skillful clowning in this production. Cal is turning out some terrific actors these days. 

There are many good performances – from Kate (Charise Green and Steven Kelly), Petruchio (Sarah Arlen and Brendan Wolfe), hobbling, raspy would-be lover Gremio (Angela Nahigian), servant Biondello (marionette-like Julia Cho), jilted gay lover Hortnesio (Danny Etcheverry), take-charge servant Tranio (J. Weekes) and others. 

For the most part, Davis’ staging is very tightly directed. 

There are extensive choreographic segments without dialogue, that are quite spectacular, such as a big fight scene at the opening of the play when Kate the shrew is introduced. Designer Raquel Barreto uses a mix of modern-day and period costuming. Sound designer Jake Rodriquez has provided effective musical backgrounds for many scenes – one particular Fellini-esque musical segment stands out–and elsewhere punctuated the action on stage with a variety of vaudeville sound effects. 

On February 23-24, in conjunction with this production, Cal will present two days of symposia open to the public on contemporary performance, literature and cultural studies.  

The February 24 performance of "Shrew You!" will be followed by a discussion of contemporary Shakespeare and performance.