How to stage, in our sensitive modern age, a battle of the sexes — where the central couple exchanges blows and the wife is subjected to days of starvation and sleep deprivation before finally knuckling under to her partner — without evoking a Lifetime movie, or a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome?
Director Jan Powell succeeds beautifully in her first production for the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s 15th annual outdoor festival at California Lutheran University. The Taming of the Shrew is the first half of a summer that tackles the Bard’s “problem plays,” continuing in late July with The Merchant of Venice. Caroline Kinsolving and Brett Elliott star as Katherine and Petruchio, a fiery termagant and the money-hungry suitor who tries to break her.
Kingsmen spirited Shrew to the Wild West for its 2000 production; Powell previously relocated it to Smith College in the 1940s with an all-female cast. Here, they opt for a traditional Elizabethan setting, albeit with a twist. Powell reinstates the often-cut frame story, in which a troupe of traveling players performs the shrew tale as a prank on an unwitting drunk called Christopher Sly. Sunny Padua is exchanged for a shadowy tavern, with a mounted stag’s head perhaps presaging the romantic hunt about to ensue.
The induction bit didn’t do much for this theater-goer, but it doesn’t exactly hurt anything either. It only delays introducing the real reason everyone goes to see this play: the smoldering chemistry between Kate and Petruchio. In a departure from the familiar hate-at-first-sight narrative, Powell allows the pair to lock eyes for a split second before they flee to their respective corners, knives drawn. The play’s peak comes early with this first encounter, a dizzying display of wordplay and physical comedy that ends with Kate, quite literally, mated.
Kinsolving, who previously appeared with Kingsmen as Rosalind in As You Like It, makes Kate a fearsome but admirable woman of spitfire intelligence and good breeding who never devolves into a caricature. She lets us feel Kate’s post-nuptial bewilderment, her panic at being eclipsed.
As far back as his performance as Benedick opposite Beatrice in Kingsmen’s 2002 production of Much Ado about Nothing, Elliott has proved adept at transforming a smart woman’s contempt into passion. His Petruchio is less bombastic than some, his intentions more transparent.
That quality becomes crucial for Kate’s capitulation, culminating in the much-reviled (at least to feminists) “a woman moved is a fountain troubled” speech. Powell said in a pre-show talkback that she wanted to perform the speech as written without making excuses, but hoped the actors would earn that moment through the course of the play.
Happily, they do.
Despite the difficult parameters of Shakespeare’s text, Kinsolving and Elliott manage to create a modern subtext of mutual understanding. In a pivotal scene when the pair meets an old man on the road, we see Kate finally catch on to Petruchio’s endgame. Her eventual acquiescence feels less like defeat and more like a decision to meet him on his turf, in a move that ultimately rewards them both.
The secondary players revolving around the Bianca-Lucentio-Hortensio-Gremio love quadrangle are also excellent — rarely does a company perform with such a consistently high-level ensemble as Kingsmen — but watching so many clowns run around in this commedia dell’arte-influenced production gets tiring. And Kinsolving and Elliott are so compelling that time spent away from them begins to feel like a distraction.
Some may argue, as my companions did, that the play cannot be divorced from its apparently misogynistic roots, and that attempts to impose a post-feminist reading violate its true meaning. But there just might be such a thing as over-analyzing Shakespeare, and for a summer evening spent in the park, I can think of few better diversions.
The Taming of the Shrew, through July 17. Kingsmen Park, California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For information and reserved seating, visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org. Admission is $15 at the door for adults 18 and older; younger than 18 are admitted free. Grounds open at 5:30 p.m. for pre-show entertainment. Main show starts at 8 p.m.