First blog post ever written on my phone — such is Fringe life!

Taming of the Shrew, a play I loathe more than any other of Shakespeare’s works, is being staged at the Victory Cafe by Shakespeare BASH’d and directed by Eric Double, who also frames the show in the part of Christopher Sly. It’s a fast-paced, very tightly put-together production, presented on a small, nearly empty stage, with simple costumes that serve more to identify particular characters than to ground the staging in any particular period. To all intents and purposes, the show uses the same means that would have been available to a small company of touring players in Shakespeare’s own time, though it doesn’t overtly align itself with any of the recent efforts at historical reconstructions of early modern staging practices. Rather, it’s the kind of production that uses some of the limitations of the past as a source of creative inspiration. In pace, and for the most part in sensibility, this is a thoroughly modern show.

There is much to like here. The production actually does more than pay lip service to the oft-rehearsed claim of putting Shakespeare and his language front and centre. There are no gimmicks in this Shrew, none of the window dressing that passes for directorial vision in so much of Anglo-American “classical” theatre (Let’s be radical: let’s set our show in the 1950s! Let’s make it relevant!). And there are mercifully few efforts to explain the jokes, or to make lines that are no longer funny amusing by performing a hilarious gesture or action with or around them. The actors get the jokes, their characters do, too, and if we don’t get them all, so what — the delivery is so fast that the moments of puzzlement can never last. In that sense, this is a staging that trusts Shakespeare’s text — and that trusts its actors. Trust is a fairly obvious general principle of the performance: the cast act as a close-knit ensemble, thoroughly familiar with each other’s movements, instincts, and tics, and that sense of connectedness is what allows the staging to be as speedy and smooth as it is without ever slipping into glib superficiality.

All that said, there is a pretty obvious major problem with relying on Shakespeare’s text in the case of a play as obnoxious and troubling as this one. The final scene in particular rankles in its nauseatingly triumphalist misogyny, and this production deliberately avoids framing that scene in any way: it’s played pretty much as is. That’s preferable to apologizing for the play, I think, and certainly in keeping with the performance’s overall principles: Regietheater this is not. But it’s difficult to swallow all the same, not just because the scene is so unpleasant, but because Kate’s transformation into the most submissive wife of all makes so little sense psychologically. The company’s refreshing insistence on using sort-of historical principles while offering a current Shakespeare rather than a museum piece don’t help in this regard either, as their approach ultimately clashes with their author’s unmitigated paleosexism. Kate still works as a character in the earlier scenes: although she may not now seem as annoying or outrageous as the men around her say she is, there is no real need to update her for a contemporary audience. But her about-face seems all the more incongruent for that very reason. And the speed of the production doesn’t give Julia Nish-Lapidus, who’s otherwise playing the character with a good deal of insight and aplomb, any space to show us how (or even that) Kate is changing — she suddenly HAS changed, but the show, not unlike the text, simply asks us to take that change at face value and make of it what we will. It’s a problem inherent in the play, but one this production highlights rather than tackles or tries to resolve.

Lastly, a word about the venue. This production has been described by some reviewers as “site specific.” it isn’t really. It’s performed, for the most part, on a small stage upstairs in the Victory. The audience can order drinks throughout the show, and sometimes actors huddle in plain sight, and in character, after exits (many of those moments are extremely well done). But none of that makes this Shrew site-specific, at least no more so than any other production staged in a particular theatre. It’s a show that uses the space the company has chosen very well, but it uses it as a make-shift theatre, not in a way that integrates the specifics of the site into the performance in a major, let alone structural, way. It’s a fun venue, and it works well for this Shrew, but a venue is all it is.

In any case: if you want to see a well-acted, tight, entertaining Shakespeare production free of pointless fussiness, unencumbered by ideological principles of verse speaking or punctuation worship, go see this Shrew. It’s got more drive and offers a more direct access to the play than anything Stratford and its ilk have been capable of in a long time. I would’ve liked to see a somewhat more invasive directorial hand and would’ve preferred it if the company had taken a more forthright stance vis-a-vis the text’s politics, but there’s no denying their energy and commitment to the play.

One Response to Toronto Fringe Diary: Taming of the Shrew

  1. Jim Cappio says:

    I’d been looking forward to this show and after this post I am genuinely psyched to see it on Sunday. But Holger, loathsome though I emphatically agree the ending of the Shrew is, do you find it so much more loathsome than the ending of Two Gentlemen that there’s no contest? I guess I feel it’s a Monday-Wednesday-Friday versus Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday choice. I’d be interested to know more if you’re inclined to elaborate.

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