During Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s production of HAMLET last summer, the program contained a questionnaire asking attendees to choose which of the Bard’s works they would like to see staged this year. Their choice, by an overwhelming majority, was THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. They asked for it, and they got it!
Shakespeare’s epic battle of wills between Kate and Petruchio highlights the misogynistic attitudes and inferior social status accorded to females during an era when Elizabeth I, the world’s most powerful woman, ruled England, grew its international empire, gave her crucial support to the theater, and remained an unmarried “Virgin Queen” so as not to allow a husband-king to expropriate her throne. While the play has become a source of controversy in our own feminist times (according to the program notes of producing artistic director David Stradley, even the director and lead actor of this current production at first “questioned whether this was a story they wanted to tell for a modern audience”), it is apparently still a crowd favorite, and it is still difficult to discern in it Shakespeare’s true intent. Was it written as a ridiculous farce of male chauvinism, or a societal ideal of forced feminine obeisance, in the day when most upper-class marriages were arranged by family patriarchs and based on advantageous economics, not in true love between the spouses?
The play’s ambiguities are evident in DSF’s interpretation. Envisioning the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 as a backdrop (the century that saw the beginnings of the American suffragist movement and calls for women’s rights), director and choreographer Samantha Bellomo places the combative romantic comedy on an arena stage with in-the-round seating (scenic design by Dylan Jamison), aptly echoing the configuration of a boxing ring or wrestling match. Vintage-style filament-bulb string lights of the type invented by Edison in the late 1870s (lighting by David Todaro) and period-inspired costumes (by Kayla Speedy) reflect the fashions of the time, as well as the outlandish outfit Shakespeare has Petruchio (the outstanding Charlie DelMarcelle) wear to embarrass Kate (Felicia Leicht) at their nuptials, negotiated by her father Baptista (Michael Gamache). But Kate’s attire also attests to her transformation, as she changes from her more fluid and less structured wedding dress to the extremely restrictive, tightly fitted blouse (and, presumably, constraining underlying corset) and bustled skirt she dons after her taming.
Bellomo begins the show with Shakespeare’s frequently omitted Induction, in which the drunken Christopher Sly (a tinker played with gusto by Leonard Kelly) is deceived into believing that he’s a lord married to a pageboy disguised in woman’s garb, and that the play-within-the-play is about to be performed for him. That key prologue informs all of the bad male behavior, disguises, and deceptions that follow, and the thematic concept of pretending to be something you’re not (i.e., the strong-willed Kate an obedient wife). Shakespeare’s slapstick humor is well-conveyed in the clownish gait and demeanor of Gremio (Lesley Berkowitz), the elderly suitor of Kate’s favored younger sister Bianca (Tabitha Allen), in Bianca’s mercurial facial expressions, and in the well-executed comedic physical altercations between Petruchio and his servant Grumio (James Kern) and between the equally-matched Petruchio and Kate. But the closing deferential speech of the now reformed titular “shrew” is delivered here with seriousness and sincerity, not satirical sarcasm, and therein lies the ambiguity between the buffoonish behavior of men and the social expectations of their dominance over women. Or is it simply that it’s easier for everyone to make love not war, and to make the best of an arranged marriage, from which, in Elizabethan times, there was little hope for escape? In any case, in the words of Gremio, “Such a mad marriage never was before”!
As always at the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, the ensemble combines seasoned professionals with emerging talents and student interns, bringing a wide array of actors, designers, and staff together to create, to teach, and to grow. Gates at the outdoor venue open an hour and fifteen minutes before the show begins; guests are invited to bring a blanket and a picnic, and to enjoy pre-show games and entertainments with the cast. Despite some technical issues with the new sound system and some near slips by the actors on the slick surface of the platform stage, the opening-night crowd seemed to be pleased with this summer’s selection! [Rockwood Park, 4651 Washington St. Extension, Wilmington, DE] July 17-August 2, 2915; delshakes.org.