Review: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Review: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Photo: Crystal Lucas-Perry (top) and Alexandra Henrikson (bottom) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Photo by Liz Lauren.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Not too long ago I discussed with a friend of mine, a talented and highly educated actor and acting teacher, plays whose time has come and gone. She made the excellent point that some plays hold no relevance, nor real significance, to a 21st-century audience, and does any theater really need to produce these again? Couldn’t these pieces be retired and relegated to the back shelves of theater libraries, she asked? I understood her point, and considered it as it applied to troublesome scripts rife with intolerance. The superb Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of TAMING OF THE SHREW, set in the time of the American suffragette movement, with an all-woman cast and restructured with additional dialogue from Second City writer Ron West, brings a clarity and an immediacy to this 400+-year-old script, faces the inherent misogyny head-on, and absolutely makes it accessible to modern audiences.

In Chicago in 1919, two rival women’s clubs, the Columbia Women’s Club and the Chicago Women’s Society, compete with all-female productions from Shakespeare’s canon (given the fact that women were forbidden to perform onstage during Shakespeare’s time, this gives a bit of a sly finger to the patriarchy). The privileged Columbia women, secure in their private sanctuary, are in dress rehearsal for their Taming of the Shrew while outside the gracious and beautiful confines of their tony club, suffragettes march demanding the vote, that their voices and positions be heard, and face violent resistance from law enforcement (the parallels to Chicago in the summer of 1968 cannot be ignored). None of the women considered how both the demands and themes in the play, and the turmoil just outside their enclave, would change them, but both do, and for the better for all of them.

The cast all handle the humor with stellar timing. Crystal Lucas-Perry (as Mrs. Van Dyne as Petruchio) pivots wonderfully as a gracious society wife to a classic posturing he-man, and gives the best and most complete personification of a man that I’ve ever seen from an actress. The terrific Alexandra Henrikson (Mrs. Harrison as Katherine) begins as a self-absorbed silly girl, but morphs into an articulate, determined and strong woman who balks at doing Katherine’s final and frustrating monologue, but chooses to do so in the best interests of her sisterhood. Rita Rehn (as Mrs. Sherman/Grumio/Widow) beautifully transforms from a smug and judgy conservative club leader to a formidable presence and takes down her own philandering husband. Every member of the cast deserves mention: E. Faye Butler, Lillian Castillo, Tina Gluschenko, Cindy Gold, Ann James, Heidi Kettenring, Hollis Resnik, Faith Servant, Kate Marie Smith, and Olivia Washington all give inspired performances.

Barbara Gaines’ excellent direction balances the exuberant humor with quiet moments of sisterhood and bonding, as well as the realization of how little some things have changed over the centuries. When Petruchio forcefully tells the assembled “she is my goods, my chattels; she is my house/My household stuff, my field, my barn/My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,” the theater fell completely silent. Ron West’s imaginative and clever reframing of the original story provides an extra layer of interest and complexity, because we see how both the roles in the play and the outside political changes in the country affect the actresses themselves, as well as their relationships with and expectations of each other. Kevin Depinet’s set creates a gorgeous home for the Columbia Women’s Club, with marble, statuary, and grandeur that is as elegant and authentic as any turn-of-the-century private club could be. Susan E. Mickey’s fantastical costumes explode with color, and show a clever device: the players remove their skirts to show their bloomers as surrogate trousers. Sound designer David Van Tieghem occasionally intersperses songs of the suffragette movement into the script, which lends another layer of authenticity to the production.

I initially wondered whether or not the experiment of altering so much of the play would succeed, or if it would turn out to be simply slick, a gimmick. Happily, my concerns were put to rest. This TAMING OF THE SHREW, with its stunning visuals, updated script, and exceptionally talented actresses, brings a fresh new and necessary perspective to one of Shakespeare’s most contentious plays.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.