Review: Kiss Me, Kate? This Taming Responds With "Shrew You!"

Shrew You!

Written by David Andrew Laws and William Shakespeare

Directed by Sophia Carlin

Presented by Hamlet Isn't Dead at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

August 11-18, 2023

Olivia Ridpath, Azumi Tsuzui, and Jillian Cicalese. Rehearsal photo. Courtesy of Emily Owens PR.
Among the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew share the distinction of being the most problematic to mount in a way that does not turn off contemporary audiences. But while it is possible to frame Shylock as a tragic figure within what is supposed to be a comedy, Shrew presents the arguably more difficult problem that Katherine embraces and even celebrates her own gaslighting oppression by the end of the play. Some productions try, with varied success, to soften the play's misogyny–by, for instance, playing Katherine's praise of women's subjugation as sarcasm–but it's a tough target to hit while preserving the original text. Shrew You!, part of FRIGID New York's The Little Shakespeare Festival, a showcase, themed this year around gender diversity, for plays that reimagine or respond to Shakespeare's work, circumvents this impasse with a condensed, self-aware version of Shakespeare's play. In so doing, Shrew You! bestows on audiences a hilarious, high-energy deconstruction that also has something to say about gender roles and reception.

One of the first 'fixes' that Shrew You! proposes is the elimination of Taming of the Shrew's induction, a partial frame that casts Shrew as a play within a play, put on for a drunk man named Christopher Sly. However, the play-within-a-play framing does not disappear but is instead displaced onto the actors playing themselves as members of Hamlet Isn't Dead (which they are) putting on the production that we are watching. Azumi (Azumi Tsuzui; she/her) is the most vocal about changing parts of Taming that she feels have not aged well (and perhaps the most optimistic that it can be 'fixed'), and the other cast members–Jillian Cicalese (she/her), Afton Paige Welch (she/her), and Olivia Ridpath (she/they)–agree to begin by giving the play a new prologue. There is some conflict over who gets to play Bianca, the beautiful (and tractable) daughter whose froward (i.e., not so tractable) sister, Katherine (Afton Paige Welch), must be espoused before Bianca's father (Olivia Ridpath) will put her on the marriage market, a condition that drives the plot of Shakespeare's play. Azumi prevails here too, leaving Jillian to play Petruchio, who weds and 'tames' Kate, with a delightful ambiguity regarding where Petruchio's narcissism ends and the spotlight-hungry persona of the actor playing him begins. As the group moves through the play, it is with a mix of original and new text and metacommentary, with Muppet-style puppets filling in at points when more than the four actors are needed (even then, some characters don't make the cut).

Speaking of these puppets, Azumi's Elmo-like Hortensio (another suitor) becomes even funnier when the other actors take the puppet away from her. In another memorable comedic moment, Ridpath as Bianca's suitor Lucentio delivers his lines in praise of her beauty as leeringly funny as part of her pitch-perfect rendition of him as a loutish bro, a type echoed to equally excellent effect in Cicalese's Petruchio. Cicalese as Petruchio and a fantastic Welch as Kate deliver some great back and forth, especially in a scene in which their verbal sparring is doubled by actual sparring with increasingly ridiculous pairings of weapons.

Even though, as an obvious sticking point, the wedding scene receives a skeptical summary and Azumi at one point says that she would rather just stop rather than play out the ending, there is also nuance here. Azumi, for instance, is not allowed to 'fix' Petruchio talking about owning Kate, and the performers discuss some positive ways to see Kate and how things turn out for her. Even Petruchio, who is undercut through, receives some recuperation. Will the actors be able to rescue the ending, and if so, how? For that, you'll need to see Shrew You! for yourself–and we highly recommend that you do, if for no other reason than the most thematically resonant use of dental floss that we've seen on a stage.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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