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In the harsh and specific poetry of its speech, David Milch’s canceled-too-soon HBO Western Deadwood is probably TV’s closest cousin to Shakespeare that isn’t actually Shakespeare. The parallel isn’t limited to spectacular (and often spectacularly vulgar) language. I can’t think of another TV show that made soliloquies—real ones, wherein characters speak aloud their thoughts without another character (too often a psychiatrist) to function as the audience’s surrogate—a regular and profitable part of its storytelling playbook.
No surprise, then, that director Aaron Posner has cited Deadwood as his impetus for setting The Taming of the Shrew in an American frontier town sometime between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the 20th century. The frontier was a rough place with a malleable and violent sense of order, “civilized” via brutal, often indefensible methods. So would we prefer it as it was? When Posner introduces his gunbelt-wearing Kate, the titular shrew, she’s hog-tying her little sister—behavior that anyone would concede is, to use the play’s favorite adjective, froward. The methods Petruchio, the fortune-seeker who pledges to wed Kate sight unseen, will use in turn to break his froward bride—depriving her of food and sleep, dousing her with water, bellowing impossible-to-obey orders-—would not seem unfamiliar to the military jailers at Guantanamo Bay.
Posner acknowledges in a program note that cowboy-booted takes on Shakespeare, and on The Taming of the Shrew in particular, are not rare. What the motif lacks in novelty it makes up for in sheer rightness, and the result of this happy marriage of setting and material is inspired. Featuring a clutch of dusty, tender songs written and beautifully performed by Cliff Eberhardt (who reminds me of Steve Earle in the best way) and a magnificent cast led by real-life spouses Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell as the combative couple, this Shrew is a high-spirited hoot that goes down like a belt of bourbon.
Tony Cisek’s handsome set takes the form of a saloon owned by Baptista Minola, gender-flipped for Sarah Marshall into the mother of the two marriageable daughters. You may recall that Baptista decrees that the beautiful, much-pursued Bianca cannot marry until someone takes Kate first. The schemes and disguises Bianca’s various suitors employ are a large part of the play’s comic business. Lucentio is wealthy (and as played by Thomas Keegan, angularly handsome), but perhaps because he knows he’ll have a better shot if he offers Bianca a taste of the forbidden, he disguises himself as a tutor and has his servant (the great Holly Twyford) assume his identity and distract Baptista while Lucentio creeps in. Marcus Kyd is looser and funnier as Hortensio, a rival suitor who gets close to Bianca by pretending to be a music teacher so he can attempt seduction via comically literal serenade. (Before that, Kyd, a former rocker, gets off a quick anachronistic musical joke that Posner is smart enough to cut off, before it can steer this thing into Shrek territory.) As Grumio, Petruchio’s servant, the impish Danny Scheie steals several B-roll scenes with his cartoony vocal work. And it’s nice to see Dave Gamble, a veteran of many a fine Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production, deservedly graduate to the majors.
As marvelous as the supporting players are, this is Norris and Nickell’s show, and they more than earn it. Nickell, late of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s productions of In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play and Clybourne Park, has managed to appear in several of the best D.C. productions of the last three or four years, growing into one of our most versatile and magnetic leading men. He’s capable of nuance when the role calls for it; this one does not. Although cleverer than he lets on, Petruchio is a swaggering blowhard unafflicted by doubt or decorum, and Nickell is a volatile delight.
Norris is every bit as good. Her reading suggests that Kate amplifies the coarser elements of her personality to buy herself some breathing room. She knows the “mildness” suitors praise in Bianca simply isn’t her nature, and that there’s more than one way to be a woman. (She reminds me of Deadwood’s Calamity Jane.) In this telling, Petruchio might know that, too: Norris has a great, wordless moment unwrapping the gown, riding pants, and boots Petruchio has ordered for her. For all his cruelty, it’s evident he understands her taste and has chosen something unconventional that he knows she will be pleased to wear.
About those duds: Helen Q. Huang’s long-tailed coats and card-parlor gowns have some flash to them without seeming too affected. She outdoes herself coming up with the bizarre ensemble Petruchio wears to his wedding, depositing what looks like an entire fox on Nickell’s head, possibly with life enough left in it to bite him.
As clothes make the man, the playhouse can make the play. Something about the Folger brings out the best in Posner: He just picked up a Helen Hayes Award for the light but soulful Cyrano he directed there last year, and his 2009 production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (which also starred Nickell and Twyford) remains the most indelible thing I’ve seen on a Washington stage. But he’s also grappled with some of the Shakespeares that present the most difficulty for audiences disinclined to view women as the property of their fathers or husbands or else murderous inciters: His 2006 Measure for Measure was a deft unpacking of that play’s many problems; his 2008 Macbeth featured a floating dagger and other illusions by the magician Teller but still rooted the play’s evil in Lady M.
Shrew’s political incorrectness is right there in the name. “It’s a tricky title, but we’re working with it,” Twyford sighs in a direct-address prologue that replaces the play’s customary framing sequence. While I wouldn’t trade Norris and Nickell for anything, you can easily imagine Twyford knocking this role out of the park, too. She’ll do it if she wants to: Shrew’s cruel courtship is evergreen. All’s fair when love is war.