Press Releases

Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ Subterranean Style By BETSY M. HUNTONSpecial to the Planet

Friday June 03, 2005

So, naturally, what you’re asking is why on earth is the Subterranean Theatre Company producing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—arguably the best-known, supposedly funny, and longest-running assault on women’s human rights on the English-speaking s tage—and they’re committing this outrage firmly in the middle of Berkeley?  

The short answer is that in no way is this your father’s Shrew. Truth to tell, it’s almost certainly unlike any version that’s ever been staged before, even though theater people have been struggling with the play ever since Shakespeare died. (According to the renowned Shakespearean scholar David Bevington, English audiences didn’t get to see a version close to Shakespeare’s original until 1844).  

But the real answer lies with t he multi-award winning Canadian director Tom Bentley, who came to Berkeley planning to devote himself exclusively to his own writing. He was suffering from a bad case of theater burnout, but Bentley’s a guy with really strong views, one of which is his de ep concern about what he sees as the increasing political strength of the religious right.  

When Bentley realized that Shrew provided an almost perfect setup from which to attack what he calls “these righteous men who have gone back to the Bible to bolst er their manhood” he set to work. He’s quite up-front about what he’s done with the play.  

He says quite explicitly in the program notes, “This production is inspired by The Promise Keepers and other similar men’s groups that promise easy answers for men seeking to define a superior place in the family.”  

It should not be surprising that Bentley has edited the play to present a cleaner plot movement through the story he has in mind. It’s still a fairly long presentation—there’s always more than enough p lay in an Elizabethan drama for a modern audience to work with. But what is there makes sense. 

One of the production’s great strengths is the ensemble of men formed from the collection of various “friends,” and other roles. The men make a tremendous impa ct from the moment they open the door and come down the aisle, two by two, holding small books to their eyes, blocking off the world. The men are dressed completely in black: shirts, socks, everything. The only touch of color distinguishing one man from another is in his satin tie, and they’re identical except for muted colors, slightly different with each man.  

And then there’s the most daring act of the production: A fairly small structure sits at the center of what would be a stage if the Art Gallery co-opted for this production had such a luxury. It serves as a theatrical “flat” where actors can go “off stage.” 

There’s a large white cross painted on it.  

So the short version of this review is to say that it’s a powerful and very effective productio n, but the truth of the matter is that it’s also pretty scary. Watching someone lose her strength, her will, her very “self,” is terrifying; there’s nothing funny about it at all. Mary Mackey has a full grasp of both parts of her role as Katherine, and her deterioration from the powerful—albeit unpleasant—woman at the opening of the play to the pathetic dependent at the end, desperately agreeing to any irrational statement thrown at her, is entirely too convincing to forget. 

Scott Nordquist is Petruchio, a man who knows what he wants. He’s the one who unblushingly declaims the famous lines “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua/ If wealthily, then happily in Padua.” His role requires a wide range of behaviors, from “Good Buddy” with his friends, to explos ive, frightening rages specifically designed to break Katherine’s will.  

It’s successful. And in this version of a very old play, it’s no longer funny at all. It is, however, fine acting. 


Subterranean Theatre Company presents The Taming of the Shrew, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. at Berkeley Art Center, Live Oak Park, through June 24. For reservations, call 276-3871.