I’ve always admired the inherent artistry involved in the production of William Shakespeare’s works – the period costumes, the lyrical dialogue, the tradition of new generations of writers and directors adapting them into their own creations. Regrettably, the number of musicals and 20th century plays I’ve seen and reviewed drastically outweigh my viewings of Shakespeare’s original comedies and dramas. With that being said, for me, witnessing Smithtown Performing Arts Center’s superb production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” was something of a novelty.
Still, I was more than familiar with the outline of its plot and characters. Like many late-20 and 30-somethings, my first exposure to the plot was the Heath Ledger vehicle “10 Things I Hate About You.” Following in the footsteps of West Side Story’s update of “Romeo and Juliet” and My Own Private Idaho’s mashup of “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” the film takes the premise of “The Taming of the Shrew” and places it in modern times – in this case 1999. Although, falling into the teen comedy genre, it’s fair to say it lacks the prestige of the former films. Why am I still talking about 10 Things I Hate About You? Besides the fact that it boasts a killer soundtrack and a great cameo by the iconic Allison Janey, I believe seeing the bones of “The Taming of the Shrew” in a modern lens impacts my reading of the play, which I will expand upon later.
Again, I’ve always found the malleability of Shakespeare’s works compelling. There is seemingly endless room for creativity and innovation as his plays fall into different hands. Smithtown’s production, adapted by director Christine Boehm, forgoes the play’s customary induction framing device, which presents the central story as a play within a play. Instead we are directly introduced to Lucentio and his manservant Tranio as they arrive in Padua, Italy. Although Lucentio has arrived in the city to study, he loses focus when he sets his eyes on Bianca – the daughter of a lord, Baptista Minola. However, Lucentio soon learns that he is not Bianca’s only suitor. Local men Gremio and Hortensio are also vying for her hand in marriage. To their disdain, her father will not allow young Bianca to marry until her elder system, the strong-willed titular “shrew” Katharina, is wed. Thus, inspires the plan to recruit Gremio’s friend Petruchio to take Katharina as his wife, who counters her strong will by pretending her words are gentle.
The cast in its entirety is made up of some of Long Island’s best performers who work together as an incredibly cohesive ensemble. Brielle Levenberg brings a modern sensibility to Katharina, delivering her dialogue with entertaining chutzpah. Katie Murano is a delightful foil as Bianca, floating through the play like a Disney princess. Meanwhile, Evan Donnellan is “positively primeval” with all the swagger and ignorance of “Beauty and the Beast’s” Gaston. The comparison extends further with the brilliant physical comedy displayed by Jae Hughes as his servant and quintessential sidekick, Grumio. Bryan Kimmelman and Dan Schindlar also share great chemistry as Lucentio and Tranio, whose masquerade is thoroughly amusing. I cannot emphasize enough that there is no weak link in this cast from the leading players to the smaller cameos.
However, as I watched Shakespeare’s work play out, I couldn’t help but mentally challenge its classification as pure comedy. Through modern eyes, the play on paper inches further into a grey zone, evoking the tone of a dark comedy. This is not a new concept in literature by any means, of course. Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” one of the most brutal novels I’ve ever read – adapted for both stage and screen – is a black comedy and satire, after all. However, with all the misogyny and cruelty tied to “Shrew” – specifically displayed during Petruchio and his male guest’s behavior during his wedding – I would have been interested to see a director’s note to gain further insight into Ms. Boehm’s interpretation of the material and what it was like staging it for 2020 audiences.
While the conclusion of the show may indicate Petruchio has finally learned to appreciate the strength of his wife, I still found myself unable to forgive him or the rest of the men for their earlier conduct. If the music wasn’t so merry, I might have mistaken Petruchio carrying Katharina off – to “bed” – while the men cackled ruthlessly as a scene out of Game of Thrones rather than one of The Bard’s lighter comedies. Not to mention the second act continues the cruel game of sorts as Petruchio starves and deprives his new bride of clothing.
Scholars and writers will likely continue to argue over whether “Shrew” is a misogynist or secretly feminist text, but that does not take away from the artistry of Smithtown’s production in the least. Tim Golebiewski’s ethereal set is positively breathtaking and well utilized as the actors weave in and out of the openings of the central structure. Meanwhile, Chakira Doherty’s costumes are stunning and saturated with remarkable detail.
Many Long Island theatre companies schedule Shakespeare’s works in the summer months for outdoor productions, but if you’re seeking out a first-rate production this winter look no further than Smithtown Performing Arts Center’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
The production runs until March 1 and tickets are available on Smithtown PAC’s website.