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It’s easy enough to conflate Shakespearean comedies. Anyone could be forgiven for confusing Twelfth Night, wherein the resourceful Viola impersonates a man in a strange country, for As You Like It, wherein the resourceful Rosalind impersonates a man in a strange forest. But no one ever forgets which one The Taming of the Shrew is, probably because of that title. This is the light amusement wherein “intolerable curst” bride Kate is starved, deprived of sleep, and psychologically tortured by the new husband to whom her father has sold her, until the happy day she accepts that obedience to her lord and master is the surest path to contentment. She shares this hard-won insight with two other new brides in the play’s famously confounding final speech.
There’s no solving for the misogyny inherent in the thing, though directors tie themselves in knots trying. Aaron Posner’s Folger production four years ago set the story in the American West circa 1870, and featured real-life spouses as Katherina and her tamer, Petruchio. There was more than a hint that they were partners in revolt, flipping the bird to the social mores of Padua (or wherever) together, and it was a hoot.
Attempting to rationalize his new take on this froward material, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar—a Jakarta-born, British-educated New Yorker who was invited to the Shakespeare Theatre on the basis of his 50-play, 50-actor (!) Bible adaptation The Mysteries—says he noticed that Shrew’s women don’t get soliloquies the way its leading men do. He’s come up with a peculiar method of restoring their inner monologues. Step 1: Allow them to perform a dozen-plus songs throughout the show written by Duncan Sheik, a man. Step 2: Cast men in every role.
There are a few problems. For one thing, none of these songs are new. They’re culled from various Sheik projects spanning his entire recording career, though his 2002 album Daylight is particularly well-represented. (One of the songs featured, “Play Your Part,” was actually written for a different musical. Nothing is reprised from Sheik’s multi–Tony Award–winning Spring Awakening, though.) Nor are they all suited to the instruments of the actors singing them. But neither of these objections are as troubling as the fact these songs were all written by a dude. That doesn’t necessarily obviate Iskandar’s rationale for including them, but given how little they serve the material, he might’ve thought about calling up Aimee Mann or Sheryl Crow or Tori Amos or some other ’90s singer-songwriter with theatrical ambitions.
As for the boys-club casting, it doesn’t have the pointed effect that, say, allowing only persons of color to play the Founding Fathers in Hamilton does. (Populating Shrew entirely with women, as a concurrent production at New York City’s Public Theater has done, seems like a more promising subversion of the text.) Crowding 17 dudes onto the stage just gives the company a dispiriting sameness, even if that is how they did it in the old days.
There is one good, even brilliant exception, and it is Maulik Pancholy’s sober characterization of Katherine. In most productions, she’s a kicking, biting, obstinate hellraiser; here, she screams only to the extent that Hillary Clinton does as described by male pundits. This Kate is merely more confident and self-possessed than “other household Kates” — or than her more marriageable little sister Bianca. Peter Gadiot’s Petruchio could be ported into a more typical Shrew with zero alteration, but he’s as winning and charismatic as a guy gaslighting his wife could possibly be.
Iskandar has a reputation for hosting performances in his home that include serving a meal prepared by himself and his actors, and he’s used his STC budget to expand on the gimmick here. The Harman Hall lobby has been made over as the “Piazza d’Amore” with vendors selling snacks and souvenirs in the lobby and actors performing music on the sidewalk on F Street NW. The mid-show “intermezzo” invites the audience to join the wedding party by snacking on free cake pops and wandering onstage while rotating cast members perform a seven-song set of (wait for it) Duncan Sheik covers. This time, they’re not interrupted by bursts of iambic pentameter, at least until Act Two begins.
Jason Sherwood’s handsome set appears to have been inspired by the M.C. Escher print “Relativity.” It’s dominated by a three-story cube with gilded staircases running down two sides. Its surfaces are replaceable; for much of Act One, they boast a print with a stylized “M” logo representing the House of Minola, the rich Paduan family to which Katherina and Bianca belong. The image on the print features a woman in a strapless ball gown and pearls holding a disintegrating rose. The top of the woman’s head is cut off. I infer she’s a dead ringer for Duncan Sheik.
This Shrew is no disaster, but it is kind of a drag.
Through June 26. 610 F St. NW. $20–$80. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.