You’ve heard of torture porn? The Taming of the Shrew is torture rom-com. That is not an overstatement. In Shakespeare’s early farce, the swaggering Petruchio (Andy Grotelueschen) breaks the spirit of the headstrong Kate (Maggie Siff) with techniques that include starvation, brainwashing and sleep deprivation: Here is a war of the sexes to which the Geneva Conventions do not apply. By the end of the night, a forward young lady has become the willing slave of a backward man, and she lectures other women about female submission in a speech that could serve as the epigraph for a book about Stockholm syndrome.
Even more than the similarly troublesome The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew presents tremendous challenges to modern artists who wish to save the text from itself. In Theatre for a New Audience’s new production, director Arin Arbus moves the action to the American Wild West and makes the now-usual effort to circumvent the play’s boorish misogyny and fashion a counterfactual world in which Petruchio and Kate are equals of a kind, hashing out a private understanding of how to present themselves to the world. Despite a capable performance by the wild-haired Grotelueschen and a superb one by Siff—whose final oration is layered with sincerity, irony and pragmatic resignation to limited options—this approach is ultimately unpersuasive. Part of me wishes to laud Arbus’s production as a smart and sensitive effort to stage a difficult work; but another part finds, in that very sensitivity and intelligence, a strained aesthetic cover for a vicious little play. Is Arbus negotiating out a new deal with The Taming of the Shrew, or merely placing her hand under Shakespeare’s boot?—Adam Feldman