- The Magazine
First the good news.
There is always room for a wildly innovative take on Shakespeare. Be it Hamlet on motorcycles or a Space 1999 King Lear, there is something exciting in watching it work, no matter the context. The themes, the pathos, the humor never get old, nor can they be subverted. Outré interpretations can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating because they force us to grapple with the director’s vision — why motorcycles? Why space suits? What’s the point? What do they add?
In Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s Taming of the Shrew (), the vision is, quite simply, have all the parts played by men. Not in an Elizabethan we-don’t-let-women-act kind of way, but in a men-in-twenty-first-century-drag kind of way. Whether you will see this as a “gay” Shrew or perhaps a “gender fluid” Shrew is likely a personal question. The fact that the question is asked at all is part of what makes it interesting.
It’s even more intriguing when it comes to the main theme of Shrew — Petruchio’s wedding of the strong-willed and intelligent Katherina and his use of physical and social deprivation to turn her into a submissive wife. It is, of course, traditionally played male-female, with all the attendant associations. This Shrew, being all male, rousts this primary gender dynamic and in doing so asks a slew of intriguing questions: Do two men change the power balance? What does that say about gender? What does it say about being gay or gender fluid? And while we’re at it: is Petruchio gay, or is he straight and in love with a man he thinks is a woman?
Add Iskandar’s choice to play Katherina’s final monologue on the joys of obedience “straight” — as in without the usual irony seen in modern interpretations — and he raises the idea (as discussed in his program notes) that Katherina has experienced a “transformation.” It’s a stretch, but an interesting one.
Looking at the production as a whole, there is something quite liberating in Iskandar’s determined inconsistency: the men dress in costumes that combine shades of Elizabethan pomp, Mad Men mid-century, modern grunge, mock medieval and even ’70s pimp. There are regular interludes of unashamed musical theater in the contemporary words and music of Duncan Sheik. There is a fluid fourth wall, disappearing when the actors run through the audience and when the audience is invited onto the stage during intermission. And yet when the Shakespeare is front and center, there is no lack of skill and intent.
This urge to experiment, to open the mind, is stimulating to watch and think about. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work.
First of all, you will either love or loathe the music. There are fully-miked pseudo-rock musical theater numbers (sadly not always on key) and interludes of Millennial whining in the form of folky ballads (a few long enough to make the Guinness Book of World Records). Put simply, for some it will be what Hell sounds like, for others, the soundtrack of their lives. As for the sets and costuming, the former are schematic and add little, the latter are hyper real, and the gay references in both facile.
But the biggest problem is the lack of chemistry between the leads. A good Shrew needs frisson between its Petruchio and Katherina; here there is almost none. Maulik Pancholy may have a magnificent profile and a powerful charisma, but his Katherina is just too one-dimensional. The wit is delivered without nuance, the anger devoid of a deeper emotional layer, and there is not even a whiff of convincing pathos in this unappreciated woman. Hands-on-the hip posturing and annoyed looks just aren’t enough to make us care about — or like — Katherina.
Though Petruchio arrives with some promising swagger and later offers some affecting tenderness, Peter Gadiot’s man never seems in any way smitten with Katherina. It is as if he is playing at Katherina and she is playing to us. This absence of chemistry is a missed opportunity and the clearest indication that, for Iskandar, the concept rules uber alles. Case further in point is the God-awful choice to climax Petruchio’s campaign of harassment with a ridiculous physical altercation mimed in slow-motion to music. Talk about diffusing the dramatic gains.
And it’s not just the leads. There is little-to-no chemistry within the ensemble — although there are individual standouts, there is no sense of the “troupe” in this production, no real cohesion. The musical breaks are part of the problem, but this is an “every man for himself” show.
Still, there are highlights. Tom Story as the foppish Hortensio sets the bar with his extraordinarily fluid Shakespeare, the kind of ironic delivery that makes a character zing, aided by superb comic timing and imagination. He is so good, it’s hard not to wonder what he could do with either of the lead roles. As Bianca, Katherina’s “perfect” younger sister, Oliver Thornton offers an intriguing, almost Bowie-esque aspect to his highly-affected woman, suggesting subtly yet effectively that there is more to Bianca than meets the eye. Andre De Shields hams it up to amusing effect as Gremio (and other roles), while Rick Hammerly makes for an intriguing Contessa, a crowd-pleasing Pedant, and offers one of the most attractive singing voices of the production. Finally, Gregory Linington delivers a traditionally jokey and well-played manservant Grumio.
But it just isn’t enough. As novel as the concept is, Shrew has the feel of a personal folly, the project of an “it” director surrounded by too many yes people. The idea may be exciting, but without a deeper connection to the play itself, it fizzles with a resounding “so what?”
The Taming of the Shrew runs to June 26 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 610 F Street NW. Tickets are $44 to $118. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
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