The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Directed by Melania Levitsky.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...never wed where he hath wooed."
"Odds Bodkins!" While no one actually says that in William Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" we somehow associate the phrase with that play. I suspect that is because in the musical "Kiss Me, Kate" which uses "Shrew" as its on-stage story the phrase appears in the comic song "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." But what does it mean, exactly? I’ll tell you. "Odds" is the common language usage for "God’s" allowing the low-folk to refer to the Deity without saying the name. "Bodkins" are sharp, pointy implements used to poke holes in leather or other materials - like hands. "Odds Bodkins", therefore are the nails that secured Jesus to the cross. What has this to do with the production on stage in Hudson right now? Absolutely nothing.
Similarly having an all female cast play the predominantly male roles in this play also means absolutely nothing. In Shakespeare’s time all of the roles, including the three major female parts, were played by men. We’re now at the 180 degree turning point, that’s all. What matters is the Bodkins, Odds or any other, in this Walking the Dog Theater production. Do they stick in the skin as they perpetrate the language and the meaning of the play, that is the question.
For the most part they do. This is a comedy, after all, in which no one dies and no wars are declared outside the marriage bed. Katherina Minola is a shrew - not the bird, but rather a hard-bitten, angry and brutal woman who bears no burdens not her own. She will not allow her prettier, younger sister to flirt. She will not allow a man to touch her, court her, look at her without some smart, witty and vicious retort. She meets her match in the money-mad courtier Petruchio. He meets her, knocks her down, marries her, makes her feel the burden of her bitterness and come to grips with it and converts her into a woman who can take as well as give. She is never the complete subservient wench he would like to believe she is, but she is what he needs her to be and what she needs to believe she can be in a successful relationship. A trifle sexist, but still a happy ending.
Melania Levitsky has made one mistake in staging her cut version of the play. She has let her women be soft in their playing of the men. It shouldn’t matter that these are women in the roles, not if they all got to be the men they should be, but Levitsky has avoided stereotyping her characters and thereby lost a modicum of credibility. That’s unfortunate because these women are good with the language and good with the roles. They just tend to come across as women playing women pretending to be men instead of dropping that middle route and just going for the stronger image. With that accomplished this could have been a perfect evening instead of just an amusing one.
Best as a man was Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz as the hero of the piece, Petruchio. She hardly ever missed a beat in her male persona. She is tall, even imposing, with an androgynous vocal quality and the gestures to match. She is highly believable in the role and when she dashes this way and that way, jerking his bride around as he taunts her with food, clothing and such we can actually buy into the romantic fantasy that this "guy" is breaking the spirit of his shrewish wife. She handles that very well. She is just as good in the final scene when "Kate" shows what she’s made of and totally captivates the man who married for money and found a soul mate.
Next best was Ashley Mayne as Lucentio, the principal suitor for the hand of Kate’s sister Bianca. She pulls of the boyishness of the character and the male-bonding moments are lovely. She also pursues her romantic quarry with a masculine fortitude that was just plain fun to watch. Benedicta Bertau makes the servant Grumio into a commedia-act with just enough boyishness to be winning. She is also lovely as the Widow who marries one of the other rejected suitors, displaying a feminine hauteur that was delightful.
Kate Gulliver is believable as the girls’ father Baptista most of the time. Noelle Holly is all right as Hortensio, but better as the Merchant who pretends to be Lucentio’s father. In the latter role she truly shines.
For the women’s roles the company is showing off two pretty ladies, Elizabeth Fountain as Bianca and Jessica Cerullo as Katherine. Fountain is just fine as the young, flirtatious girl who can’t keep the boys away and even better as the romantic bride who can’t keep her new husband at bay. Even so, she can’t hold a candle to the virago-sister played by Cerullo. Here is fire and magic at work. From her first entrance we know exactly who she is and what she wants; a dominatrix is being born. By the time Petruchio is finished with her transformation, however, she has been transformed more than three times and her gradual alteration is so very believable in her playing of the role that any prized being given for reality-quest acting should be proudly handed to her.
Cerullo together with Kullberg-Bendz - this is a duet that plays well against the simple trappings of an open-space stage. Aaron J. March has given the company a beautiful stage floor and a simple set of white shades against which to display their wares, their talents. Ian Gulliver has done as much with the lighting. Simple, straightforward and effective looks enhance the production.
Levitsky has removed the prologue from the play, which I personally regard as an excellent thing to do, and replaced it with a song, a dance and a mime in which the women of the company create their character’s physical appearances for us. It does almost as much as Shakespeare’s words, leaving out the philosophy but setting up the concept of a troupe of friends doing this play. While it may not satisfy the author’s need for justification it does justify the production choice.
Lasting just over two hours, this is not everyone’s Shakespeare. It is good Shakespeare and it certainly is entertaining. In a period of cross-dressing productions (Thanksgiving is for "what"?) in Columbia County this is a good deal of fun. Next up - Hair Loom, the Christmas Pantomime, in Ghent and then a revival of Walking the Dog’s cross-dressing "Cyrano" in Copake. I predict not a turkey among them.
The Minola Family: Bianco (Elizabeth Fountain), Baptista (Kate Gulliver), and Katherine (Jessica Cerullo); photo: Iva Peele
The honeymoon couple: Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz and Jessica Cerullo; photo: Iva Peele
Fountain and Ashley Mayne; photo: Iva Peele
The Taming of The Shrew plays at Stageworks/Hudson through November 25 with evening performances at 7:30 and matinees at 2. Tickets are $18-$25 and reservations may be had by calling 1-800-838-3006.