As of January 7, 2013, this website will serve as an archive site only. For news, reviews and a connection with audience and creators of theatre all over the country, please go to The Charlebois Post - Canada.

Search This Blog

Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Taming of the Shrew

Rasmussen and McCooeye (photo by Antoine Yared)

First there is the problem of the play
Can our critic get over the fact that Shrew is "egregiously outdated"?
by Jessica Wei

Sometimes you have to regard Shakespeare as your octogenarian grandfather at family dinners who likes to get bourbon-drunk and spout remarks less than 21st century politically correct that you kind of have to just smile and shrug through, like, “I'm pretty sure she was actually Japanese, and probably not a communist, necessarily, but then again you've been through a war and, y'know, can't teach an old dog new tricks, sooooo.....”
My point is, it is very difficult to enjoy Taming of the Shrew. It has its uncomfortable lulls. The political message hasn't quite transcended the five hundred years since it was written. Women with sharp tongues don't need to be “trained” anymore, especially not by gold-digging courters who have to run a business arrangement through rich old papa before sliding into first base. This is just a fact, and when one is slouched in a lawn chair at Mount Royal Cemetery, trying to enjoy this egregiously outdated play, one needs to first get over the fact that in Elizabethan England, sexism just didn't really exist.
this is not a socially progressive play, but it's Shakespeare

In Taming of the Shrew, the beautiful but boring Bianca is being wooed by three wealthy suitors who find out that she is unable to wed until her spunky older sister Katharina finds herself a husband, as outlined by their father. The only problem is that Katharina has built herself a reputation for chasing potential lovers away due to her spunkiness. So, the suitors find themselves a man who is more interested in money than love, who has a plan to tame the shrew (hence the title), and turn her into an obedient wife so his buddies can go ahead and try to win over the sister. Again, this is not a socially progressive play, but it's Shakespeare. 
That being said, it's always a good idea to have the [arguably] most offensive character in Shakespeare's canon be performed by the most charming person, I'm convinced, ever. I'm serious. Alex McCooeye as Petruchio could give lessons to Don Juan on wooing a lady. Fred Astaire could learn a thing or two from McCooeye's fluid body movements. This guy simply melts on stage and beckons the audience to forget all the horrible things his character does like a piece of bitter chocolate in your mouth. His comic trade-offs with Matt Gagnon, who plays Petruchio's servant Grumio, are a delight to watch. His chemistry with Kirsten Rasmussen's fiery Kate in the first act actually gets the audience rooting for his success. 
This all falls apart after intermission, however. The Bianca and co. subplot, carried by Miriam Cummings as the sweet little sister, Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski as her doting main man, with the assistance of Jeffrey Ho, Davide Chiazzese, Mitchell Cohen, and the hilarious Stephen Joffe, is entertaining but not spectacular. They make clever acting choices. They are talented and well-outfitted, but they are not fighting to extract as much comedy and tension as this play requires. When all the characters are kind of 21st century villainous by default, a romantic lead cannot simply shrink into the role of a watery pretty boy, and the audience should hate the shit out of the slimy old rich dude who thinks he can buy the heart of a young woman. Their story gets chuckles, but it doesn't inspire genuine passion or laughter. 
As this is Shakespeare in the Park, their resources are limited. The directors Andrew Shaver and Paul Hopkins do the best they can with a small circular platform, and the pipe jutting out of the centre of it provides clever entrances and exits (thought not without some narrative confusion). All of the actors' body movements are dynamic on this simple stage and save for some marginal back-to-the-audience stuff, the staging is well-calculated. 
And – okay – there's, like, a really uncomfortable scene at the end when some newly-married husbands have a bet with each other over who has the more obedient wife, followed by an even more uncomfortable monologue (something about women serving men with a “hand under foot”), but you know what? Don't worry about it. It's Shakespeare. And if you've got a free evening, an open mind, and a bottle of wine, why not spend it with Shakespeare in the park?


  1. Love, power, battle of the sexes, class status and gender equality are themes that have always and will always be around.
    To come into the play saying it's hard to enjoy because it's outdated is simply irresponsible journalism.
    The reason why Shakespeare is still the most perfromed playwright is beacuse his themes are timeless.
    Too many faults in this article to point out but can't over look "in Elizabethan times sexism just didn't exist." An absolutely absurd statement.
    Katerine's character is rich in irony concerning the battle of the sexes. She and Shakespeare were ahead of their time.
    The acting community and the reader deserve much better.

  2. This is the first time I read a review at the Charlebois Post in which I actually feel second-hand embarrassment for the reviewer. What the hell is this, I don't even....

  3. I don't think anyone need feel embarrassment for Jessica. She is one of our finest writers and clearly you did not understand the tone of the review. To approach Shrew with anything other than strong ambivalence is to ignore its history. She is quite right that in Elizabethan times sexism didn't exist because women were considered goods to be traded. It is that - the very centre of the play - that requires a modern argument when presenting it. I must say this: Jessica did job one - she provoked reaction and discussion. Not high-minded discussion, judging from these comments, but discussion nevertheless.

  4. I absolutely agree with the first comment. Any reviewer who starts the piece"it is very difficult to enjoy The Taming of the Shrew" simply should not be reviewing it. End of story.
    Actors, directors and designers just work too hard to be judged by such bias.

    1. I disagree: theatre makers can be judged just as much by their choice of material as their execution of it.
      It's a complete fallacy to separate the play and its content from the rest of the work of the production, pretending that the poor hard-working director is being unfairly judged because he just happens to have staged a play that warrents critique.

  5. My God...have any of you READ this fucking play? Do you live in the 21st century?

  6. I think it's a great review and does complete justice to the discomfort many of us feel with this play. It's not so different from the discomfort that Jews feel about Merchant of Venice due to the portrayal of Shylock. The anti-Semitism of Shakespeare's day simply bled in to the play and that's that. But for us, the 500 years between then and now have taught us a thing or two about anti-Semitism - and so the play can make us squirm.
    Same for sexism. Anyone getting their knickers in a knot because of this astute review is just - to paraphrase Hamlet - doth protesting too much.

  7. I love how detractors on these forums continually hide behind the veil of anonymity.

    Reviewing the source material is equally valid as reviewing the presentation and performance. Leila already brought up Merchant of Venice. The only thing I will add on that subject is that there is much discussion on how Skylock is portrayed (sympathetic or antagonistic) in order to present him to modern audiences.

    It is an entirely valid question to ask, as a friend of mine did with a recent presentation of A Comedy Of Errors (one of Shakespeare's earlier and less polished works), "why even present this play?"

  8. When I review something I always take into account the script, it would be rediculous not to. "Well, the script was so terrible I wanted to claw my eyes out, but the design and acting was delightful, so I'll just leave the part about being rediculously bored and not enjoying the show out of my review, it will be totally helpful to my readers"

    I don't think Shakespeare should somehow be exempt simply because he's a legend. Maybe the people commenting on here wouldn't have a problem with the underlying "women as property/livestock" themes rampant in the play since that is the way it was in the world at the time the play was penned, but personally, it still makes me uncomfortable.

    So, I would be disappointed by a review that *didn't* address that issuean and how the whole thing was handled in that specific production.

    Also, anyone who put on a production of something like Shrew without expecting it to be seen in some way through the lens of out current world be incredibly short sighted.

  9. Sorry about the previous sniffy comment. Did not want to feed the troll. But subsequent comments...huzzah!

  10. Oh good! Because I'm going to post my review for CanStage's Midsummer Night's Dream soon and I've always had a problem with that play, but thought the current High Park production was highly entertaining and fun, despite my reservations of the play itself (despite knowing it's a much beloved classic) (though my reservations have less to do with sexism or racism as I just question WHY to many of the subplots). And I think Jessica's questioning of the play (even though it's a classic) is a valid discussion and an honest opinion that she points out straight up, allowing us readers to know exactly where she is coming from. Shouldn't we be laying out all our honest biases out to get a true sense of our reactions to a show?

    1. Vance brings up a strong point about 'bias'. It speaks volumes that Jessica had such strongly positive comments about the cast in spite of her objections to the source material.

  11. The post is in the business of critiquing local theatre productions. The 1st comment critques a badly written review and the post responds with expletives and calls its readers trolls. Sounds like my octogenerian granfather that like to get bourbon drunk.

  12. One of the things I love about "Shrew" is that it can really induce heated discussions between men and women. It's like Mamet's "Oleanna". Mamet himself said almost no couples agree on the piece and subsequently fight after seeing it. "Shrew" can provoke. Not as forcefull as "Oleanna" but it achieves what good theatre sets out to do and that is pushing its audiences buttons.
    There is a possiblity that the reviewer came in with such strong feelings about the piece that she was not open to that. She certaintly didn't allude to it.
    One of the burdens an actress has to bear even 5 centuries after Shakespeare is playing objects, playing stereotypes. It happens in tv and film almost allof the time.
    But if your ever lucky enough to play Viola in 12th Night or Rosalind in As you Like it or yes, Kate in Shrew; you get that rare opportunity of playing women who are smarter than men, who are multi dimensional, who are strong and complex. When you act in a Shakespeare play you really experience first hand just how insightful he was about the human condition. In the struggles of men and women. In what it means to be human.

  13. I wasn't going to respond to these comments, because frankly, it's a review and totally subject to disagreement. But this is getting interesting.

    I don't believe I was being an irresponsible journalist when mentioning my discomfort with the play. My feelings towards Shrew will be inextricably linked with my reaction to the production. For Repercussion Theatre (or anyone willing to mount this play), knowing the controversial themes involved when putting on Shrew will naturally be factored into the casting and direction of this production. This play is notoriously sexist. To not address that as a director, an actor, an audience member or a reviewer, would be to miss a huge part of the tradition of this play.

    I also suspect that anyone with no prior knowledge of Shrew would prefer to know about these themes before walking blindly onto the grass to see this production.

    Did I let my personal reservations of Shrew detract from really trying to enjoy the production? I sincerely hope not - I DID enjoy the play. But do I believe that there are ways to do the play better while still keeping those themes? Yes. That's why I wrote this review the way I wrote it.

  14. This is a limited biased review with little mention of anything except the writer's predictable female angst, written by a young (but clearly sociably liberated) female who mentions the fact IN RED PRINT that "this is not a socially progressive play." Are you writing to a group of ignoramuses? Who doesnt know this? This is a comedy, get it? That means you take obvious things and foolish characters and.......Just because it is free and in a park doesnt mean that the attendees are mentally retarded.

  15. The red print is a formatting decision.

  16. I quite enjoyed this review for most of the reasons people have already mentioned above. I think it is incredibly thoughtful and well-rounded. It's very accurate to my own experience with the play itself when I saw it last night at Westmount Park. I think one, as a journalist, has to mention their personal opinion and feelings they got out of it.. or it's not much of a review, is it?

    "Anonymous", whether you are the same person or not, I don't think she is ignoring that it is a comedy... She reviewed all the other aspects of the play. She was not analyzing and primarily focusing on the script. Furthermore, I don't believe she is saying, "BECAUSE this is not a socially progressive play, DON'T SEE IT." I commend her for being able to separate herself from the main themes in the play and still be able to review the aspects of the production - that is a hard thing to do when your morals are being challenged. I also congratulate the cast and crew for an excellent production.

    Also, as a side note, I liked the formatting decision. Red's a great colour!

  17. This review rings completely true with the play I saw last night in Westmount Park. I've been looking for reviews of the show out of curiosity and only came across this one and that of The Gazette. It is a fantastic production for the reasons mentioned in this review. The Gazette review makes absolutely no sense and fails to even explore the largest issue of the play. Kudos to Jessica for reacting honestly to what she saw.

  18. I just commented on this review on the Charpo Canada blog thinking I was the first, and came across this thread later. I'll echo the shock of the Charpo commenter when they say "My God...have any of you READ this fucking play? Do you live in the 21st century?"

    I can't believe anyone has to pussy-foot around the fact that this play is full of blatantly misogynistic, oppressive language and situations. Kudos, again, to Jessica for at least mentioning this in her review.

    I will gladly take perhaps a few more steps in that direction and say: great, so Shakespeare gets a pass because he's from another era, but what's Repercussion's excuse? This whole "eternal themes," "battle of the sexes" stuff seems pretty weak and wishy washy to me in Montreal circa 2012-- radical, queer, potentially revolutionary Montreal. Is a straight-up production of Taming of the Shrew really good enough to skate through on humour alone? Why should we all be shrugging helplessly at the uncomfortable experience of that last monologue, and then ignoring it?

    Did anyone find something more interesting in this staging that I missed?

  19. Why should Repercussion need any excuse at all?

    Are you suggesting that TofS and similarly politically incorrect plays should effectively be banned from the stage?

  20. Lordie, there's a tangent. Personally, I don't even think Min Kampf should be banned...just that people should be aware of what they are putting out there.

  21. As a married (and tamed) woman myself, I can assure you that I'm no more tamed than my husband when at home. We bicker, have power struggles, and I'm quite certain that as often as I think my husband is an idiot, he thinks me crazy. But when out in public, do I portray the loving and supportive wife? Absolutely! And do I play my weakness card when I want my husband to carry out the garbage? Damn straight.

    As much as I'd like to think that we are equals in every way, shape and form, the truth is, we're not. And what's wrong with that? I'm not suggesting that one should feel oppressed by their partner, and sure, Petruchio's "method" of taming his woman by depriving her of food, water, and sleep may seem a "tad" extreme (if this wasn't a comedy), but come on. Do you really think Kate is so stupid to stay with a man who's intention is to hurt her? Might it be that Kate actually sees through what Petruchio is trying to do and accepts it for the greater good, and because she actually loves this strange man? Does no one recall Petruchio's speech in defense of Kate to her father? Think him manipulative if you wish, but I'd like to think he really loves this feisty woman. He's met his match!

    Sure, there are words in this play that I'm not at all fond of; that make my skin crawl. I had our Minister remove the word "obey" from our wedding vows! But I think if you want a marriage to work (which obviously few couples do with divorce stats as they are), you must compromise. And yes, sometimes that means compromising oneself.

    I love this play, and in particular this production, because it reveals the ugly (and beautiful) truth about us. Men like to talk big in front of their man-folk about having their woman submit to their every demand, and women love to bitch about their men. But in the end, what really matters is what happens behind closed doors.

    So think this play is dated if you like. But I think it's more accurate than most of you are willing to admit. But then again, perhaps you haven't been tamed by marriage yet! Or by children!


Please read our guidelines for posting comments.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.