Every summer, The Public Theater puts on two free shows. There’s usually a joint theme between the two, and at least one is always by Shakespeare. This summer started with The Taming of the Shrew, and will be followed by Troilus and Cressida, bringing to life the theme, “Lovers at war, warriors in love.” These shows are difficult to get to for two reasons. One: you have to be able to get to New York City. Two: you have to line up for tickets very early in the morning, or win the digital lottery.
In the simplest terms, The Taming of the Shrew plot begins with a wealthy man named Baptista with two daughters. Katherina, the eldest, is bad tempered and violent while the younger Bianca is beautiful and sweet. Everyone wants to get with Bianca. However, Baptista won’t marry off Bianca unless Katherina is wed first. Enter Petruchio, who only cares about marrying for money. Petruchio marries Katherina and “tames” her, Bianca marries one of her suitors, and they all live happily ever after.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, this production is incredibly special as it features an all-female cast. Lloyd turns a dated trope around, as all of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by entirely male casts. The Taming of the Shrew has always made me uncomfortable because of the abusive relationship between Petruchio and Katherina. The discomfort remained, but that was definitely the aim of the production. The cast certainly played up their characters, showing what human beings are truly capable of, even today.
The show’s set and costumes (both created by Mark Thompson) also reflected this idea. The set resembled a not-quite modern day trailer park inside of a circus. The characters, wealthy and poor alike, had trailer homes. Petruchio (Janet McTeer) hilariously, lived in an RV. The costumes were also fantastic at signaling what a farce the whole situation is. Katherina (Cush Jumbo) is first seen in a short, poofy, pink dress and pig tails, which is completely at odds with her depraved behavior. Cowboy hats are signs of wealth, while Petruchio is dressed in flannel and leather.
This production opened with a Donald Trump voiceover announcing a beauty contest. Some participants come out and share their talents. The last is Bianca (Gayle Rankin) who is then violently torn off the stage by her sister. The show then proceeded with the original Shakespearean script. For the most part, the show stayed true to its original text, with a few exceptions. Gremio normally comes out to give a speech, but Judy Gold’s portrayal instead does a misogynistic stand-up routine about how awful it is that the show is directed by a woman, that a woman is running for president, etc. At the end of the show, Katherina gives a speech on how women should act towards their husbands, and she is announced the winner of the beauty pageant. She is crowned and given flowers and a sash. When she realizes she has been “tamed,” Katherina hulks out, ripping off the crown and her crinoline, and running off the stage. Bianca is then named the replacement winner. Bianca gets the crown, sash, and flowers, and all the men on stage surround her. Bianca’s smile seems genuine at first, and then as flashbulbs go off, it seems more and more fake.
Every detail in the set, prop choices, and costumes were perfectly thought out, and added layers of depth to the story. My favorite detail was the plastic Virgin Mary with a light-up halo. The figure was comedically raised up and hung before the first wedding. Mary–rather than the typical Jesus on the cross–was chosen to watch over the male dominated story and stayed there for the rest of the show. The cast takes their bows every night to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” surely a nod to 10 Things I Hate About You, the most famous cinematic retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.
This all female production is so well timed, and perfectly satirical. The ensemble of women are wonderful and play off each other brilliantly. The set, costumes, and even the lighting made this production stand out as one I don’t think I’ll ever forget. If you are in New York City this week, I highly recommend getting to this show. It is a treasure.