American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Box Office: 608-588-2361
By Gwendolyn Rice | Isthmus | October 22, 2021
In her director's notes for American Players Theatre's new production of The Taming of the Shrew, Shana Cooper answers the first, most obvious question lurking in the modern audience's mind: How can you do this show now? And why would you?
Shakespeare's thorny chestnut has fallen off the favorites list in the last few decades, just as The Merchant of Venice has, because tastes, social norms, and the notion of what is funny have changed radically in the last four centuries. After hundreds of years of laughing at the titular shrew Kate, as she is taught how to behave by her eccentric, domineering new husband Petruchio, finally the idea of starving and gaslighting a woman while depriving her of a voice and a good night's sleep isn't comedy, it's unnerving. It reads as abuse and misogyny used to a sinister end: to break a woman's spirit and make her eternally subservient.
But it turns out that Cooper, who adapts and directs the script for APT's Touchstone Theatre, has great reasons to mount her version of The Taming of the Shrew in 2021. By completely reimagining the play (without significantly changing the text) she illustrates a society that is smothered by performative masculinity, reducing women to commodities and awarding marriage contracts to the highest bidder. In this testosterone overcharged world, the only characters who have a chance at true love are the ones who value honest emotion over money and throw off the toxic, socially prescribed behavior of their gender. This Shrew is not only one you can cheer for, it's a contemporary tale you can heartily enjoy, as it overflows with smart and silly comedy pushed to absurd, delightful limits.
The evening begins with neon and a nightclub beat, on a leafy set punctuated with topiary sculptures of men and women, backgrounded by the word "love" written out in shrubbery. (Genius, startling design by Andrew Boyce.) A raucous dumb show immediately plunges the audience into a disorienting, shiny and crass world, wordlessly illustrating the tone of the heightened, modern Padua we are about to enter. It also foreshadows key elements of the story that make later scenes more resonant.
Dressed in smooth fedoras, fake mustaches, and loud shiny suits in garish colors, the entire cast — a mere five actors — parades around the stage like playboys drunk on their own machismo. (They dazzle the audience in exceptionally well tailored, over-the-top costumes by Raquel Adorno.) They swagger and dance, thrusting their hips and grunting until, two by two, they pair up and challenge each other to a duel of masculinity. Preening like peacocks (or perhaps more like a technicolor version of the Roxbury guys from Saturday Night Live) the contests are interrupted by true emotion only once, when the actors playing Petruchio and Kate (Daniel José Molina and Alejandra Escalante) see through their cartoonish outer layers and really discover each other. In this wordless intro, Cooper shows her hand completely, detailing exactly how she will re-interpret Shrew as a festival of misguided men's posturing and gamesmanship, in pursuit of owning a rich woman and defeating their male rivals. The only way to really win this competition, for men or women, is by refusing to play.
Once the concept and production elements turn Shrew on its head, then the comedy is turned up to 11 by stripping the cast down to bare bones. Outside of the Reduced Shakespeare Company productions, you've probably never seen so many characters played by so few actors with such facility. The small but mighty cast — composed of both new faces and APT veterans — is absolutely extraordinary. They abound with energy and go all in on every zany, quick change with intensity that is exceeded only by their creativity and precision, presenting a multitude of distinct players at lightning speed.