Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is playing fast and loose with The Taming of the Shrew, this summer's annual outing in Forest Park. The fast part is welcome, and this mindless "two hours' traffic" on the stage does indeed only last about two hours. The loose part is less welcome, because in updating the classic battle of wills between Shakespeare's two lunatic lovers, the play's very rhyme and reason are buried under a barrage of gimmickry that mistakes shtick for story.
The locale has been updated from seventeenth-century Italy to a ranch-style house, presumably in the 1950s. Then again, maybe not. In the playbill director Sean Graney tells us he doesn't want to be bound by a specific time. Rather, "once in a while" as we watch the production he would like us to "think of America in the 1950s." Which is a clever escape clause that absolves Graney of any responsibility to any sense of theater truth. I actually found myself imagining this Shrew, not in 1950s America, but rather in the 1830s Denmark of Hans Christian Andersen. Despite the relentless mile-a-minute shenanigans that occur here, Graney's inability to reinterpret Shakespeare's knockdown romp for a contemporary audience puts him in league with the duplicitous weavers at the center of "The Emperor's New Clothes."
If a director is not going to be accountable for what he puts on the stage, then there's no reason to point out the many things that don't make sense — the fundamental wrongness, for instance, of lollipop-kids costumes — because to the director they're not wrong. But there's a catch to all this. At some point even the most Bizarro World director is obligated to confront the play. Not surprisingly, Graney's interpretation is least effective where other productions are most foolproof: the narrative. You probably already know the story. The lovely Bianca cannot be courted until her older sister, the brawling wildcat Katherina, is wed. Enter Petruchio, an opportunistic soldier of fortune who is willing to marry anyone, even this "fiend from Hell," if the price is right. Once Petruchio and Katherina meet, the wick of a plot has been lit. Now, let the fireworks proceed.
Except that in Graney's staging there are no fireworks. The fuse is a dud. The rapport between Paul Hurley (Petruchio) and Annie Worden (Katherina) is nonexistent. Their scenes lack vigor, sexual tension and even humor. Ultimately, any satisfying staging of Shrew must address a change in their status. Call it love, subjugation, duplicity — before the story ends, Petruchio and Kate must surrender to the uneasy (and unexpected) fact of their mutual affection. But these two seem to share the same antipathy for each other in the final scene as they did when they first met. Neither performance is of interest, because the director had no interest in his two actors.
Nor, for that matter, in any of his actors. After they've worked like dogs for two relentless hours, when it's the actors' turn to take a bow, Graney helps them not at all. The curtain call is astonishingly flat. Yet it also serves as a summation of what has gone before. At its empty core, this SFSTL staging is a breezy two hours of nothingness, wrapped in the sound and fury of shouting and spittle. (There's lots of spitting here, if that amuses you.) For those intrepid theatergoers who like their Shakespeare scrambled, stir-fried or just half-baked, Graney's antics might provide a merry romp. But if perchance you believe that energy for its own sake does not a farce make, this Shrew might not be your brew of choice.