The playbill for the current St. Louis Shakespeare production of The Taming of the Shrew features this intriguing program credit: "Stage Combat Choreography -- Todd Gillenardo." We expect to see combat in the history plays, in which Shakespeare chronicles England's most famous battles. But combat in a comedy? Of course. For here, our theme is nothing less than that most arduous conflict of all: the battle of the sexes.
For decades now, theater academicians have taken a perverse glee in dismissing The Taming of the Shrew as one of Shakespeare's "early plays." These would-be scholars seem to believe that, like auto mechanics, dramatists improve with experience. It ain't necessarily so. In our own generation, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge are just a few of many playwrights who wrote their most important works early in their careers.
Curiously enough, the man we believe to be Shakespeare actually did have an arc to his career. No one would argue that the facile Shrew is a more resonant play than Hamlet. But compare The Taming of the Shrew to Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's later variation on the same theme. For me, Much Ado is the Bard's most complete comedy of character, but it is not his most successful farce.
Farce -- as we will be reminded next week, when the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opens its season with Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, perhaps the best farce ever constructed -- exists in a world in which character is secondary to plot. If you pause to look for subtext and motivation in The Taming of the Shrew, likely you'll get knocked over the head with a loaf of bread while you're looking. Shakespeare, having accomplished the challenge he set for himself in Shrew with great dexterity and ingenious wit, moved on from farce to plays of character and substance. But those later, richer plays do not diminish his accomplishment here.
Set in the year 1630, the story takes place in sunny Italy. Every eligible bachelor in Padua longs to woo the beauteous Bianca (who, as portrayed by Meghan Carroll, seems to be the town flirt and is not nearly so sweet as her doting father believes). But there is one roadblock: Bianca cannot be courted until her older sister, the brawling wildcat Katherine, is wed. Enter Petruchio, a swaggering soldier of fortune who is willing to marry anyone, even this "fiend from hell," if the price is right. Once Petruchio and Katherine meet, the wick of a plot has been lit. Now, let the fireworks proceed.
Any production of The Taming of the Shrew rises or falls on its Petruchio and Katherine. As the shrew, Kelly Schnider gives an admirable performance. Her timing is right-on. She knows when to pick up the pace, and -- even more important -- when to slow down. Late in the play, when finally she is "tamed," Schnider's line readings are so deliberate and intelligent that we realize she hasn't been tamed at all; this Kate simply knows when to throw in the towel.
But here's the rub. In this battle of the sexes, Schnider has been stripped of her most valuable feminine weapon: her hair, which is tied up in a sexless bun. You wouldn't ask a bullfighter to go out into the ring without his cape. But directors (usually male directors) think nothing of sending actresses into the fray without their tresses. Three weeks ago, in the ECHO Theatre production of George Walker's Problem Child, Schnider made provocative use of all the tools at her disposal -- including her body and her hair -- to engage the audience's attention. But here, deprived of those tools, she's fighting an uphill struggle.
By contrast, Jerry Russo's assured Petruchio personifies everything good about this Shrew. If Russo isn't having the time of his life on the Grandel stage, he's an even better actor than I think he is. With a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, he exudes confidence. If a piece of stage business doesn't work, he shrugs it off with a laugh -- and you don't really know who's doing the shrugging, Petruchio or Russo. The actor also possesses a strong voice capable of overriding the acoustic black holes on the Grandel stage.
The production itself is encumbered by a few black holes, not the least of which is a sober preshow concert in total disharmony with the spunky play to follow. (Whose lame-brained notion was it that a solemn recital of "Ave Maria" would put viewers into the proper mood for a farce?) The mirth and merriment that emanate from Russo's jaunty romp are cheerful reminders that the 400-year-old Taming of the Shrew remains surefire entertainment.