The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park season kicks off with an all-female take on “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring two exceptionally animated actresses and offering generally low-stakes direction from Phyllida Lloyd, of “Mamma Mia!” (stage and screen) and “The Iron Lady.”
Cush Jumbo, of TV’s “The Good Wife,” has the showy role of Katherina, the title “shrew,” a tantrum-throwing conniver who, as tradition has it, must be married off before suitors may vie for the hand of younger sister Bianca. Janet McTeer, a Tony winner for “A Doll’s House,” dons a butch leather jacket to woo her, as Petruchio.
Lining up a cast of women for a play that’s explicitly about men who expect obedience from their wives pretty much guarantees an interpretation dripping in irony, and that’s just what Lloyd delivers—a “Shrew” that throws into relief the silly ways that men behave.
This interpretation offers numerous updates, including a framing device that sets up the main play around “The Miss Lombardy Pageant” (Donald Trump-esque host included) and the thundering appearance on stage of a camper used by Petruchio to steal away with his near-hostage bride, its redneck license plate unsubtly reading: “PISA ASS.”
Some 16 talented actresses swagger around in Speakeasy-era wardrobe and perform with exaggerated behaviors generally associated with the less-fair sex. No one seems to be having more fun than McTeer, who underscores testosterone-fueled dialogue (“What, with my tongue in your tail?”) with many a lewd flick of her own oral appendage.
Her hair disheveled and hands hooked in her belt-loops, McTeer’s Petruchio never worries about making herself attractive to Katherina. One vulgar bit of stagecraft even has her standing and urinating against a post. What a great reminder to men in the audience how easy we have it!
Jumbo, who debuted on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman in “The River,” is directed to perform with her needle in the red zone, throwing her first fit during the opening pageant scene, which has her pedaling on stage on a bicycle and then throwing it aside, eyes bulging and neck tendons popping.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson (“A Raisin in the Sun”) makes for a commanding Baptista, father to Katherina and Bianca, who isn’t going to make any exception to conventions. As Bianca, Gayle Rankin does a swell job of giving spirit to a character who’s generally written as docile and malleable.
I was equally taken with Judy Gold’s Gremio, frustrated suitor to Bianca, who interrupts the 2-hour proceedings to rail against “the fact that the director of this show is a woman.” In concluding a sexist rant, she grabs her crotch and adds: “Now we’ve got a broad running for president, another one telling chicks to ‘lean in.’ Yeah, lean in and suck this!”
Most “Shrew” riffs end with Katherina capitulating to her husband. Not so here. A postscript has Katherina tossing aside her pageant roses and joining in a defiant, guitar-driven hoedown to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” It may be a subtle nod to “10 Things I Hate About You,” the 1999 movie that’s one of many pop culture takes on the play.
This interpretation is certainly asserting that women have more choices than they did in the Bard’s day. It’s good, smirking fun, sometimes too-smitten with its own sense of edginess. Lloyd is shooting fish in a barrel: Can there be excitement in taking a stand for empowerment via a story that was so very isolated to its particular era?
On second thought ….
“The Taming of the Shrew,” through June 26 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Visit publictheater.org for ticket information.
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