Feminist Frame Rescues Shrew @ ChicagoShakes

4 Stars out of 4

Full disclosure:The Taming of the Shrew has always been cringeworthy for me. Even with an all female cast, the text renders it misogynistic – and somewhat incomprehensible: rarely can an actress find a deep truth in Katherine’s change of demeanor—either she is beaten down, a victim, or seething still but playing along to survive.It’s hard to find a throughline that justifies her cowedness after abuse in our current day.  In almost every production I have seen, there is a bile producing sense that I am party, as audience and witness, to the subjugation of women, even as I laugh it off. I have speculated as to what exactly this play was trying to do in its own time: was Shakespeare noting how Queen Elizabeth might be compromised by having a husband?  Was there some kind of early feminist power play occurring culturally and this show was to re-iterate the proper roles for women?  When this play hit the boards Queen Bess was well beyond her perennial marital negotiations, and I can find no evidence that the time required putting ladies in their place any more so than any other era in the patriarchy.  So the why of Shrew remains a mystery.

But writer Ron West has created a funny and poignant suffragette frame for Barbara Gaines’ new production of The Taming of the Shrew at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and it completely turns the show upside down and lets us shake out golden coins of value and valor in this old comedy.  By setting it in Chicago 1919, in the heady day that the 19th amendment passes, this play within a play, carried out by the women of the upper crust Columbia Women’s Club, allows the actresses/characters to comment on their roles, and to move back and forth from early twentieth century women whose identities are inexorably their husbands to women who are taking baby steps towards individual agency. It is a hilarious and deeply feminist riff.  The traditional Shakespeare tale is all there: the bad tempered older sister who must be married off before the suitors may vie for her beautiful and placid younger sibling; the men ganging up to marry her off, the discussion of dowries and the frank laying out that a woman is a pawn, an asset in a game mostly played by the men.  This baker’s dozen ofsupremely talented  actors manages to go from upstanding women of society to rowdy boys of Elizabethan England in a moment. Crystal Lucas-Perry creates a confident, virile Pertuchio. Heidi Kettering’s Tranio is exquisite.  But it is Alexandra Henrikson’s Katherine that is the soul of the drama.  Playing Mrs. Louise Harrison, the somewhat bored socialite, she becomes every woman who has ever chafed at the restrictions of society as Kate.  Her scream of NOOOOOO , her absolute hunger,  come from the deepest inner reaches , from centuries of oppression.  And when she is to give the final monologue mansplaining her change of demeanor, she at first cannot, will not, do it.  The struggle is palpable.  Ringleader Mrs. Sherman, played by the amazing Rita Rehn, reminds her that they committed to finishing this work and they need to end it the way Shakespeare wrote it.  Louise/Katherine’s resignation is chilling.

 

This is a redeemed Shrew to take your daughters to.  It is so rich, from the all too on the nose political humor to the delicious period set by Kevin Depinet, to the fantastic costumes by Susan E. Mickey. Because the script tells us the basement of the Columbia Womens Club has flooded, all of their costumes are gone and the women play the show in their gorgeous period underwear!   The women also sing period ditties from the fight for suffrage and in our own politically fraught times, these tunes echo meaningfully.

 

As the show concludes and the women stand in awe and solidarity with their newfound power, we go out into the night mindful of the fragility of suffrage even today.  This new production, by recalling an historical era, becomes as current as tonight’s blog post from political pundits.

 The Taming of the Shrew is playing through November 12, 2017 in the Courtyard Theatre of Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. For tickets and information go to www.ChicagoShakes.com  or call 312-596-5600 or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-taming-of-the-shrew/9375/