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May 17, 2010

LaBute's no-surrender 'Shrew'

ShrewThumbCST.jpgShakespeare's Katherina of Padua is outrageous, hostile and terribly funny, and "The Taming of the Shrew" is a great game of wits as long as the game seems fair. But there's the rub for modern audiences. Never mind that the shrew was a stock character with a stock remedy. You can feel the squirming begin as Kate is systematically humiliated, muddied, starved and sleep-deprived.

Faced with the prospect of half an audience pleading, "Say it ain't so!" as Kate kneels for peace, her hand below her husband's foot, what's a producer to do?

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has tried something new with Neil LaBute, a playwright who knows a thing or two about sexual politics in the modern era.

Into Shakespeare's play, LaBute has interpolated some cheeky scenes for a new set of characters -- the modern actors rehearsing their 400-year-old roles. Shakespeare's shrew is also LaBute's "actress" who plays the shrew. She's a ripping take on a modern Kate -- a free-spirited lesbian at war with her lover, the director -- with a final payoff you won't see coming.

LaBute being LaBute, he has shocked and offended some. What's wonderful about his approach is that the Shakespeare is played largely straight, leaving playgoers free to laugh their heads off at a period piece that has been put, quite cleverly, in its place. I'd rather watch this production with its smart escape valve than suffer the winking delivery of certain lines, or the wringing of tortured interpretations that spring from off-stage developments, all to appease today's cultural sensibility.

If as a producer you cannot agree that Shakepeare's text alone is sufficient, and that a valid case can be made for Kate and Petruchio, suddenly and mutually smitten, to achieve a true meeting of minds, then LaBute's modern framing device is a tantalizing alternative.

Shakepeare's own first scene is a prelude, often dropped from performances, that sets "Shrew" as a play within a play. LaBute has his precedent. If he doesn't entirely succeed, especially in the entr'acte soliloquy for the director in meltdown, it may be that the whole thing's still a work in progress. The ending itself was changed very late in rehearsal, according to one of the actors in a post-performance talkback. Our modern Kate's battle ends quite differently than LaBute originally wrote.

What LaBute's got now is the exit line of the year in my book. How did LaBute and the company led by Josie Rourke, artistic director of London's Bush Theatre, get there? That's a story I'd like to read.

Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre: In one of Neil LaBute's new scenes for "The Taming of the Shrew," the actress performing the role of Katherina (Bianca Amato) has words with her Director (Mary Beth Fisher) about the way she is staging the play.

May 17, 2010 6:54 AM | | Comments (1)


LaBute's framing is a disaster. If the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) powers that be were so determined to pursue this course, why not aim higher than Neil LaBute? Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, or even Edward Albee? Unlikely any would agree but, for a lark, they just might. Or let the actors improvise something -- they're the ones who end up looking and sounding like horses' asses. Them and Josie Rourke who, after last year's CST marine marvel of a TWELFTH NIGHT, shares some of (all of?) the blame.

Pity because Rourke and the actors do such a good job on the "non-contemporary" stuff. Funny how Shakespeare survives all the bright Ideas inflicted on his plays. And just maybe having a drunk tossed from a bar, having the mistress of said bar demand payment for broken glasses and going for a cop when the drunk tells her to stick it, having that drunk pass out on a curb, and finally having a lord stroll by and decide to play a practical joke on the drunk (all of this in two pages!) is one rousing great way to start a comedy. Guess Shakespeare's just too damn "contemporary" for some people.

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