Because Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” is about a difficult woman who needs to be made to obey and submit to her husband, it’s always a challenge to mount a palatable modern production. Even so, despite being one of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies, it still offers enough great verbal wordplay not to be neglected — Petruchio (Fred Arsenault) declares his intention with the words, “I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” a line so delicious that Cole Porter wrote a song about it in the musical Shrew adaptation “Kiss Me Kate” – and director Edward Morgan mostly manages to downplay the misogyny in his excellent, accessible, superbly acted and genuinely funny production at Shakespeare Santa Cruz.
Modern productions tend to avoid claiming that the transformation of Katherine (Gretchen Hall), the shrew, from hostility to affability is a result of survival by submission. But in the absence of this impetus, it can be difficult to find believable motivation, especially since Petruchio, who prompts the change, comes off as a brute in the text, starving Kate of comfort and food, all in the name of love. The 1999 film “10 Things I Hate About You,” loosely based on the play, had a smart solution: claiming Kate’s cruelty was a way of masking past hurt. She needed only meet her equal in order to open and soften up. Morgan’s production takes a similar approach: Kate’s recalcitrance often seems a defense against being treated as property, especially as her wit so far surpasses that of those around her. That is, until she marries Petruchio, a man smart and obstinate enough to earn her respect.
The concept’s still a bit shaky, but Morgan largely manages to sell it by making the verbal sparring between the couple resemble a good-
humored, if nasty, exchange of equals, like Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” When Petruchio takes Katherine on a trek, he refuses to let them continue until she agrees that their journey is lit by either the sun or the moon, whichever should strike his capricious fancy. Although Katherine finally complies, it’s neither sycophantic nor submissive but playful; she is merely indulging the whims of an impossible man, somewhat jokingly, in order to get on with things.
But there are some scenes that teem with such misogyny that modernizing the characters isn’t enough to make them acceptable. Morgan wisely makes use of Shakespeare’s induction to the play, without any dialogue, to frame the action as merely the dream of a drunkard, Christopher Sly (also played by Arsenault). The induction is often cut for time, and in the surviving text is never revisited later in the play; Morgan retains the spirit of it without any dialogue, by having Sly stumble into the theatre before the play, and then have him awaken from a dream toward the end.
No additional dialogue is added later but some of the original text is repeated to emphasize that a dream has occurred, a notion that isn’t quite clear from the start. But it does correct our distaste for the events retroactively: Morgan suggests that only a pathetic drunkard like Sly would fantasize about total obedience from a wife. Dramatizing Katherine’s obsequiousness points out its absurdity.
The production benefits from an extremely talented cast, which handled all the complexities of Shakespeare’s text while varying the speed and articulation of delivery to elucidate the language. Arsenault is a perfect Petruchio – pompous, smart and more obstinate than brutish – with a commanding stage presence. Katherine’s beloved but bland younger sister, Bianca (Victoria Nassif), has three suitors who compete for her affection in the play’s B plot — all three are superb — while the elderly Gremio (Kit Wilder) helplessly points his walking stick like a sword at every nemesis. Hortensio (William Elsman) has a powerhouse voice but is hilariously hopeless in his attempts to woo Bianca while disguised poorly as a one-eyed music teacher. The winning suitor, Lucentio (Elvin McRae), often a thankless role, gets as many laughs as the more ridiculous older suitors. The many cases of mistaken identity are handled expertly, and we sometimes sense that Lucentio’s servant, Tranio (Nick Ortega), who is forced to masquerade as his master, may be having too much fun as an aristocrat. The great supporting cast thus succeeds at keeping us thoroughly entertained and more willing to forgive the play for its dated plot. There is still much to enjoy about “Shrew,” and Morgan succeeds at reminding us why it’s still a relevant play, and a great way to spend an evening.