Women-Only Cast Tames the “Shrew”

Janet McTeer (center) and the company of The Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Joan Marcus.

An all-female cast for The Taming of the Shrew — the idea goes a meaningful way towards rectifying the inevitable 21st century problem with Shakespeare’s early comedy. Prime evidence is on view in Phyllida Lloyd’s merry revival of the play, running through June 26, free as always, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Shrew, which was likely written between 1590 to 1592, is already at odds with Shakespeare’s usual characterizations of women. Go through his canon play by play and it quickly becomes apparent that he sees women as far brainier and far more realistic than men. Sure, Hamlet is a thinker and has a great command of language, but King Lear? Macbeth? Othello? They’re all foolish and often handily bested by the women in their lives. Rosalind in As You Like It dances circles around Orlando: does she utter a questionable sentence?

So what to make of shrewish Katherina, who is “tamed” by Petruchio after he cruelly deprives her of food and rest? What to make of her there at the finish, advising all the ladies to be prepared to put their hands under a man’s foot — and then doing as much. For those who claim that Shakespeare didn’t write all the works attributed to him, here’s potentially substantiating evidence.

But then again, when women, in contemporary times, take all the male roles as well as all the female roles in this play, the result can be a send-up of men — a deliberate undercutting of male authority.

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I’ve seen it done twice now. Before this Shrew, I watched an all-women version unfold three summers ago, at London’s Globe, directed by Joe Murphy. I don’t think anyone fell what for Katherina — Kate — proclaimed as she subordinated herself to Petruchio.

The same outcome pervades Lloyd’s hilarious take. She has been making a recent habit of guiding all-female Shakespeare productions, bringing both Julius Caesar and a melding of Henry IV to New York, each one featuring the mercurial Harriet Walter.

Yes, sir — er, ma’am — Lloyd jubilantly knows what she’s doing, and, with this Shrew, she even more jubilantly makes additional comments on male behavior. The actresses pretending to be men execute an array of male postures. They strut. They square their shoulders. They gesticulate roughly. They dig their hands into their trouser pockets. They put on such displays of “traditional” masculine attributes that they eventually can’t be taken seriously. Which means that Kate’s eventual acquiescence to Petruchio can’t be taken seriously, either. With men like these, she really can’t mean it when she succumbs, can she?

Lloyd is canny about that: note the blatant design of the production — by Mark Thompson, who also furnishes the wonderful costumes — to look like a one-ring circus with two circus vans flanking it. The audience can see from the moment they take their seats that they’re at a literal circus, but they can also access the metaphorical import. The director further bookends the play with, of all things, the Miss USA pageant and a voiceover unmistakably like that of the pageant’s former owner, Donald Trump.

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So it’s not going on a limb to say that Lloyd delivers one of the best free Shakespeare offerings ever, courtesy of a cast of male-impersonator beauties, led by the fearless Janet McTeer. Tall and lean in modified western garb, with her hair slicked back and somehow looking like Sam Shepard in his earlier movie roles, McTeer swaggers and smokes with ease. At least once she leans against a circus tentpole as if lounging at a streetlamp. Throughout, she’s a confident, amused, shrewd Petruchio. As if the “d” added to the word “shrew” gives an advantage.

As Hortensio, the committed suitor to Katherina’s younger sister, Bianca (Gayle Rankin), Donna Lynn Champlin more than once looks set to commandeer the show. She tap dances like a demon in the Miss USA talent contest at the top of the show. She plays accordion when pretending to tutor Bianca — a ruse from her character to steal some alone time. She ambles around like a man hunting a misplaced cigar. She looks as if she’s giving the performance that Nathan Lane would give if this were a traditional, post-Elizabethan revival.

Nor is Champlin the only thief of scenes: there’s also Judy Gold, who’s usually on her own at a comedy club mic. Broad shouldered in a wise-guy blue suit, she plays another Bianca’s suitor, Gremio. She does step out of character a few times when technical difficulties crop up — these apparently arise at the same point in all performances. In the place of her character, Gold launches into standup mode, doing a dead-on delivery of The Donald. In comic parlance, she kills.

Indeed, there’s not a woman as a man in the entire cast — Rosa Gilmore, Adrienne C. Moore, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Teresa Avia Lim, Stacey Sargeant, Anne L. Nathan, Candy Buckley — who isn’t pulling the drag off hilariously and looking to be having a helluva good time at it.

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Then there are women playing women. Cush Jumbo (Brutus in Lloyd’s Julius Caesar and late of The Good Wife) is the raucous, rancorous Kate, although it seems that in all the script tinkering (the play is two hours, no intermission), her harridan qualities are ever-so-slightly curbed. Jumbo commits herself to Kate right up to that damned speech about obedience — and then not beyond it when Lloyd inserts a final twist.

There’s much to be said about Gayle Rankin’s Bianca, too. Standard practice has Bianca as a sweet and compliant young woman unable to marry until her older sister weds. This Bianca is anything but. She’s a dim, spoiled brat, and as funny as a gaudy party dress. And just you wait until Lucentio, who’s surreptitiously courting Bianca, instructs her on how to play Scarlett O’Hara. (You read that right.) In the only other part of a woman played by a woman, Leenya Rideout, as the widow that Hortensio settles for, enhances her every opportunity.

Lloyd fills this Shrew with delightful surprises. There’s even a wedding band that plays “For Once in My Life” — twice. She also works her theatrical magic without a single one of the players attempting an English accent. Imagine that. How shrewd.