Such duty as the subject owes the prince, Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour, And not obedient to his honest will, What is she but a foul contending rebel And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
– Katherine’s final monologue,
“The Taming of the Shrew”
Should a woman “obey” her husband? Should a woman be granted the right to vote in the U.S.? Both questions are tackled in the amusing new Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of the Bard’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” which takes Shakespeare’s original controversial comedy and integrates it with a 1919 Chicago setting and an all-female cast. The result of this mash-up: an enjoyable, educational and often very funny evening.
The concept by director Barbara Gaines is to replace the original opening of the play (in which a prank is played on a tipsy tinker) with a scene in which a 1919 women’s club is trying to perform all of Shakespeare’s plays before a rival club can do so. The members of the Columbia Women’s Club (CWC), who are having their dress rehearsal of the final play – “Shrew” – pretty evenly are divided on whether women should have the right to vote, a subject being debated in the U.S. Senate that afternoon. One senator is the husband of the CWC chair, so her phone calls to Washington, combined with suffragette activities in Chicago and changing attitudes within the CWC’s membership, help propel that interesting storyline throughout the 2-hour-and-45-minute show.
The CWC scenes are written by Ron West, whose sense of humor after directing a ton of shows for The Second City makes them an intriguing contrast to the romantic comedy – and some would say misogyny – of the “Shrew” scenes. Much of West’s humor comes from our knowledge of 21st century reality, compared to the opinions and statements that easily could have been made almost 100 years ago. A perfect example: “I find it hard to believe police would ever be violent.” And, by setting this as a dress rehearsal on a day when flooding has spoiled their main rehearsal space, sets and some costumes, the stops and starts between “Shrew” scenes make sense and allow us to see these CWC members as they really are, not just in the guise of Petruchio, Bianca, Lucentio or the other key characters.
When Shakespeare staged his plays, men played all the roles. The switch here to all women is a smart one, since it allows the mostly independent women of 1919 to comment on aspects of “Shrew” many have found objectionable.
As you’ll recall, the premise of “Shrew” is Baptista (played here by the multi-talented E. Faye Butler), a wealthy Padua, Italy, father, has two daughters: the feisty, untamed Katherine (Alexandra Henrikson) and the beautiful, sweet Bianca (Olivia Washington). Many men want to pursue Bianca, but Baptista demands Katherine, as the elder of the two, must be married off first. Among Bianca’s suitors are the leering, panting and considerably older Gremio (played to hilarious effect by the always-entertaining Hollis Resnik); Hortensio (Tina Gluschenko), who disguises himself as a music teacher to get close to Bianca; and a rich, university-bound young man, Lucentio (Kate Marie Smith), who pretends to be a tutor to Bianca. Lucentio has his servant Tranio (Jefferson Award-winner Heidi Kettenring) pretend to be Lucentio to ultimately seek the approval of Baptista when Bianca is free to be courted.
Got all that? Good, but that isn’t all. There’s still the matter of the Katherine-married-first stumbling block. Hortensio to the rescue with a visit from his fearless friend Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry), a man who cares more about the size of a woman’s dowry than the size of her temper. He is determined to wear down this fiery female, no matter what. The psychological torture (perfectly cooked meat is too well done, so no food for Katherine) is played for laughs, but the result at the end of the Shakespeare scenes is three newly married couples, including a woman whose thoughts are 180 degrees away from where she started. The 1919 discussion before the final Katherine monologue puts into words the thoughts of many: Why does she need to be put in her place? Why can’t “voting today, equal pay tomorrow” be a reality, not a line we squirm and laugh at?
In summary: The cast is universally excellent; the set is stunning, including paintings of key historical figures; Gaines has brought out the strengths of each actress and character, and the Shakespeare and West parts of the show complement each other. In a world where fear and conflict have been at the forefront, this comedy provides a fun, thoughtful and welcome escape.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” all at the Woodstock Opera House, and the RCLPC Theater production of “On Golden Pond” at Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church. He’s also acted in Williams Street Repertory LAB Series dramatic readings at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake.
“The Taming of the Shrew”
WHEN: Through Nov. 12
WHERE: Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
COST & INFO: Tickets start at $58. Tickets and information: 312-595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com