How do you deal with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in the era of #MeToo and fourth-wave feminism? If you’re director Lois Anderson, you shrewdly turn things on their head.
It should come as no surprise though that Anderson so successfully deals with one of the Bard’s “problematic” plays when viewed through a contemporary lens, given her feminist take on Lysistrata at last year’s festival.
Anderson is also no stranger to the play, having previously performed the role of Kate for Bard on the Beach seven years ago. But while that 2012 production tackled the difficulties in this story of a woman “tamed” by her husband by never taking itself too seriously, in 2019 Anderson is much more thoughtful. She not only manages a constant swinging of power between Petruchio and Kate, but in ultimately making them co-conspirators there is an almost contemporary shift to make this a story of love’s transformative abilities, rather than one of simple transformation.
Perhaps more subtly but no less important, Anderson also tackles another contemporary issue, that of bullying. Greeted by shouts of “Shrew!” each time Kate makes an appearance, Petruchio’s reaction to the townsfolk’s cries helps to lay the groundwork of the connection the two will eventually find.
Anderson and her cast have also gone to great lengths to ensure a clarity of story, something which isn’t always the case with productions of Shakespeare’s plays. By ensuring audiences are not left behind in following its various plot points, we are more fully able to invest.
Of course, realizing Anderson’s vision is not possible without a cast to support it. Leading the way is the pairing of Jennifer Lines and Andrew McNee in the roles of Kate and Petruchio.
What makes Lines’ portrayal particularly compelling is in how she manages to never lose sight of the rebellious force that propels her character. Never apologising, Lines uses Kate’s desire to shake up the status quo to full advantage. It takes on added meaning by setting this production inside the American Wild West where women were largely driven by a Victorian ideal that limited them to domestic duties. For those, like Kate, who challenged this patriarchal view, they were largely met with scorn and ridicule.
As Petruchio, McNee does what he does so well, by providing soft and playful edges to a man initially driven by the size of Kate’s dowry. Much of the time it is in the small details of his performance which sets the stage for the two to finally come to terms.
Director Anderson also ensures the play’s comedy is not lost with some clever business that includes a few nods to spaghetti westerns, and in its supporting characters.
In particular, Kate Besworth is uproariously funny as Kate’s younger sister Bianca, Anton Lipovetsky does some fine comedic work as the timid suitor Hortensio, and Susinn McFarlen is deliciously straight-laced as Baptista.
On the more serious side, Scott Bellis is convincing as the forsaken Gremio, while Joel Wirkkunen finds a nice balance between the funny and the serious as Petruchio’s servant Grumio.
But while the bulk of this supporting cast is grounded, even in the context of some of the play’s broader characters Anderson does let a few go a little too much to caricature. Creating a noticeable imbalance, it is more reminiscent of the free-wheeling 2012 production.
Helping to set time-and-place, set designer Cory Sincennes provides wide-open spaces for the actors with moveable set pieces upon this year’s luscious wood stage, and Mara Gottler provides a wonderful array of costumes for both the upper-class townsfolk and Padua’s more scruffy residents.
Special mention must go to sound operator Liam Hunt who on opening night faced malfunctioning equipment, requiring him to manually switch microphones. No small feat on this large cast, Hunt did such a seamless job that if Bard’s artistic director Christopher Gaze had not announced this before the show we would have been none the wiser.
From time-to-time the term “visionary director” gets bandied about. Given what Anderson has accomplished here with The Taming of the Shrew, coupled with her previous work on Bard on the Beach stages with last year’s Lysistrata and Pericles in 2016, this is not hyperbole.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lois Anderson. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. Playing in repertory on the BMO Mainstage in Vanier Park with Shakespeare in Love until September 21. Visit bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.