Karissa Wheeler (C’19) and Raymond McAnally (C’01) as the lead roles of Katherina and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo courtesy of Buck Butler (C’89).
By Sydney Leibfritz
Ushering in roughly 150 audience members on opening night and only slightly less the following nights, many students, faculty, and staff flocked into the Tennessee Williams Center to see how the student-led production grappled with one of Shakespeare’s most widely known comedies: The Taming of the Shrew.
The production falls into the theater department’s tradition of performing Shakespeare every three to four years, the most recent being King Lear in 2016.
The Taming of the Shrew primarily follows the dysfunctional courtship and marriage of commanding, wealth-hunting Petruchio, played by Raymond McAnally (C’01), and the temperamental, unrelenting Katherina Minola, played by Karissa Wheeler (C’19). After Signior Baptista, Katherina’s father here played by Dillon Sheehan (C’21), proclaims that his highly-sought after younger daughter Bianca may not enter courtship until the elder daughter is married, the newly arrived Petruchio nominates himself as a suitor, bent on shaping Katherina the “shrew” into a tamed, obedient wife.
After a tumultuous first encounter, the marriage between the two unrelenting forces seems doomed to fail. Both remain stubborn in their behaviors; however, as the play continues and Petruchio insists on only treating Katherina as she treats him, the tension resolves into a more harmonious union, ending with Katherina defending Petruchio as her superior.
Often deemed as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” alongside Othello and The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew often struggles to translate to a modern audience due to its controversial messages of domestic violence and the play’s final monologue. The production took many cautions to invoke a positive reception, particularly in the age of #MeToo.
For one, the play fully devoted itself to the more comedic aspects of the play, allowing the dialogue between Katherina and Petruchio to take on a more dry, sarcastic attitude than outright cruelty. Director Peter Smith also opted to cast alumnus McAnally as the leading man to ensure the role played with the utmost maturity.
In response to the controversial history of the play, theater major Greer King (C’21) said, “Although the play is problematic in 2019, one has to remember that the play was written long ago and that we have come a long way in terms of women’s rights and expectations for women as wives.”
She added, “I think that the actors did an amazing job of not taking the controversial aspects of the play too seriously. The scenery was cartoonish and the costumes were playful, helping to add more comedy into the show.”
However, to some who attended the performance, the ending left a little to be desired.
“I thought the play itself was well performed,” said Sadira Hayes (C’21). “I was anticipating a twist at the end, but found myself a little unsure about the resonating message concluding the performance. But overall, [it was] a well-performed play and worth my time.”
While the leading couple becomes locked in a struggle for dominance, a secondary courtship plot emerges between the younger daughter Bianca, played by Miranda Nelson (C’22), and Lucentio, played by Nicholas Govindan (C’21), a scholar who disguises himself as a Latin tutor and trades identities with his friend and servant Tranio, played by Tristan Ketcham (C’20), to win Bianca’s favor. Through Bianca’s trio of suitors and wider circle of servants, most of the onstage comedy emerges.
The first of Lucentio’s rivals is Gremio, played by Finn Gallagher (C’21), an elderly man who can hardly stand without assistance much less woo a woman decades his junior. The second is Hortensio, played by Danny Hambleton (C’20), a suitable but secondary love who attempts to counter Luciento by posing as a music tutor.
The suitors shove, argue, tease, and challenge one another as Lucentio’s servants struggle to keep his identity a secret from Bianca’s father, ultimately resulting in a confusing web of lies coming together in a scene of dramatic irony at its finest.
Another key aspect was the production’s engagement with its audience members. Kate Graham (C’20), a Shakespeare Studies minor, noted, “this production stood out to me because of the level with which they involved the audience– coming to sit next to them, playing with them, calling them out, and the audience absolutely loved it and began to get even more involved, which is always the goal.”
She went on to explain that, on the night she attended, the lights flickered out twice during the show’s first act but the actors powered through, even adlibbing jokes about the situation. “It just shows how comfortable the actors were in the space and with the characters they were playing,” Graham answered.
The four-night performance wrapped up on March 10, concluding the 2018-2019 theater season by bringing this classic Shakespeare work to a new modern audience.