Director takes unique approach to ‘Shrew’

“The Taming of the Shrew” is the most controversial production at the Utah festival this summer, and it’s easy to see why.

Some consider this Shakespeare’s problem play. A braggart decides to “tame” a domineering woman and marry her for her considerable dowry. After being starved, publicly humiliated and physically tormented, she submits. A final speech has her proclaiming that a woman’s place is at her husband’s foot, ready to do him ease.

How do you do this script today without getting lynched?

Director Jane Page has come up with a legitimate vision, often funny and boisterously romantic, yet likely to offend as many as it appeases.

She’s set the action in a comic-strip vision of a piazza in 1947 occupied Italy. Petruchio (Grant Goodman) is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, while his love interest, Katharina (Melinda Parrett), is a local girl who helps Pop run a small cafe.

Page highlights the theatrical conventions. When a character seems to burn himself on a campfire during a scene change, he rolls his eyes and picks up the entire prop to haul it away. When canvases come down to indicate shifts in locales, characters walking on stage angrily kick the material, as if impatient to get on with their scene.

All this emotional distancing — along with the delightfully broad playing style — encourages us to not take things seriously.

And it’s easy to have fun with this cast. Parrett is such a towering presence as an actress, that you can see what a challenge — and a coup — it would be to win her over. Goodman is a likably cocky GI, and it’s touching how he slowly comes to care for his human bounty. As a bonus, there are several moments of “inconsequential” singing that blossom unexpectedly into breathtaking choral numbers.

The sketchlike approach occasionally upstages the love story. We don’t quite feel the gradations in Katharina’s attitude. Some of the shtick is excessive (do we really need more Brando/”Godfather” jokes?). And the whole idea of an American soldier bullying a female member of an occupied nation has unpleasant undertones that I suspect the director did not entirely consider.

But if you accept the production as nothing more than whipped cream entertainment, you may find yourself, as I did, happily surrendering to it.

It’s certainly a must-see for Shakespeare buffs who enjoy unique approaches to a difficult-to-do play.

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