Shakespeare in the Park marks the 400th year of The Bard’s death with a raucous rendition of The Taming of the Shrew that is as genderless as it was the day it was born in the 1590s.
Back then, women were banned from such unseemly pursuits as acting, so, of necessity, men were drafted to do tightly-corseted female roles in drag. Today, it is the ladies who do the heavy lifting in a revival helmed by Phyllida Lloyd at Shakespeare in the Park’s Delacorte Theater through June 26.
Lloyd is an accomplished English director glistening with steely intelligence and authority. She specializes in presenting women of strength, depth and profundity.
On Broadway, these have been both at odds (Mary Stuart) and in harmony (Mamma Mia!); at St. Ann’s Warehouse, they have even been men (by way of an all-female Henry IV and a Julius Caesar set in a maximum-security women’s prison).
“Doing these plays with a single gender—whether it’s male or female—really does throw the themes into broad relief,” Lloyd insists. “You realize how non-naturalistic they were originally and how we’ve somehow gotten into this groove of attempting to perform them with a kind of verisimilitude, which I’m not sure was ever the intention. I think they were always intended to be presented in quite bold colors.”
Shrew is a domesticating comedy that depicts the courtship of a swaggering Petruchio, who has “come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” to a headstrong Katherina.
In Lloyd’s version, Cush Jumbo plays Kate and Janet McTeer is Petruchio. “It’s a tremendous company of mainly New York actresses, with three Europeans in there just for variety—we’re all having a big adventure,” she contends.
Along for this adventure are Judy Gold (Gremio), Candy Buckley (Vincentio), Donna Lynne Champlin (Hortensio), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Baptista), Gayle Rankin (Bianca) and Anne L. Nathan (Pedant).
This is not Lloyd’s—or McTeer’s—first time with Shakespeare’s comedy of the sexes: “My first all-female anything was the Shrew I did—with Janet as Petruchio—in 2003 at London’s Globe. I took on that production by default when somebody became indisposed, and it’s remained very much unfinished business for Janet and me ever since.”
How does one woman direct another woman to play a macho pig like Petruchio? “With great relish,” Lloyd says with a smile. “It’s a huge role with thunderous, poetic, leonine features.
“Actresses so often are using only a tiny corner of the muscles they have. For them to feel that they are working at their full capacity is unique, and so there’s excitement in the room—the sense of privilege, of how high the stakes are. This might be a one-off opportunity, so nobody is taking it lightly. Everybody is really full of the promise of the project.
“It’s humbling to be in this city, with these women, at a time when you’re about to have a female president. Think how many times Hillary Clinton has been called a shrew. To make your voice heard as a woman, you often must risk a bad reputation.”