Wits brush up on their Shakespeare

All is not what it seems in The University Wits reverse-gender version of Taming of the Shrew.
All is not what it seems in The University Wits reverse-gender version of Taming of the Shrew.
Photo: 
Shrew showed strong emotion and choreography.
Shrew showed strong emotion and choreography.
Photo: 

Theatre Review: The Taming of the Shrew, staged by The University Wits @ KCVI

Someone in the audience watching the University Wits’ production of The Taming of the Shrew might notice something odd about the characters. Katherine is about a foot taller than her suitor, Petrucchio, who seems unusually buxom. And the bit of Bianca’s shin visible to the audience is quite hairy.

It doesn’t take long, of course, to realize that this is a reverse-gender production, in which all the male roles are played by women, and vice-versa.

The cross-gender casting was a very deliberate directorial choice, co-director Conor Moore told the Journal.

Moore said he chose The Taming of the Shrew in part because of its reputation.

“Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s one people trod out as evidence that he’s not a genius,” he said, adding that one reason for the play’s unpopularity is its overt sexism. “The blatant misogyny in it is something I find it interesting to revisit with cross-gendered casting.”

“By flipping around with gender you sort of toss that on its back,” he said. “I think it makes the misogyny within the piece sort of ridiculous.”

The gender-bending roles, while openly farcical, nonetheless display a lot of talent. The characters of sisters Katherine and Bianca are very well played by Tom Beck and Tom McGee. Both have fun with their skirts and makeup, but also do a good job at keeping their characters three-dimensional—no easy task in a play whose roles seem deliberately stock and stereotypical. McGee manages to create a Bianca who is more than just the pretty face everyone is trying to woo, and goes as far as sending a poisoned look or two at her sister.

Beck, for his part, does an excellent job of really relishing and expressing the language of his lines. He lends Katherine some sensitivity that rounds out her shrewish character to give her a more multi-faceted and believable personality.

Caroline Smith, in the role of Petrucchio, is also one of the strongest actors in the play. While some actors seem to have trouble both speaking the Shakespearean lines naturally and remembering to act at the same time, Smith does both masterfully. Her broad gestures and expressiveness work well with her articulation to create a vibrant and peremptory Petrucchio who makes sure to involve the audience in the action onstage by occasionally addressing them and casting meaningful looks in their direction.

The fact that Smith is visibly enjoying herself in her role makes her acting much more engaging for the audience and helps to enliven those onstage with her, who seem to enjoy themselves more as a result of her exuberance.

One somewhat surprising disappointment, given the obvious strength of the two actors, is the interplay between Petrucchio and Katherine. This is most apparent in Act 2, Scene 1, during the face-off between the two fiery personalities that can be, and ought to be, the most snappy and verbally exciting dialogue in the play. Petrucchio and Katherine meet for the first time, and set upon each other in a heated battle of wits. In this instance, however—perhaps due to each actor’s eagerness—the lines tend to jump on top of each other and some of the fun and spontaneity of the exchange is lost.

Smith and Beck work better together in later scenes, in which Beck plays the suffering wretch to Smith’s sadistic husband-cum-shrew-tamer.

Perhaps the best example in this piece of two actors working in concert is between Katherine and Bianca earlier in Act 2, Scene 1. The sisters’ only solo scene together depicts marvellously the essence of sibling rivalry, from physical torment to parental favouritism. The physicality of this scene, as well, is very well done, thanks to excellent blocking and effective fight rehearsals, rendering the actor’s movements very smooth and natural. Watching this sequence, brief as it is, one really does get the sense of two sisters locked in an age-old battle of fraternal superiority.

Another very well-played exchange is between two very strong comedic characters. Sarah Kriger, as the wily servant Tranio, creates a delightful clownish character through exaggerated facial expressions and gestures that add significance to Shakespeare’s double entendres. Cat Haywood enacts a playful, fun caricature of the ancient and lecherous Gremio. Both Kriger and Haywood use physical and non-verbal acting to their advantage, acting the clowns seamlessly. As Tranio, impersonating Lucentio, competes with Gremio for Baptista’s good favour and the hand of his daughter Bianca, the two play off of each other to enact a fun and light-hearted sequence.

The stylistic mise en scene of the piece is muted and fairly simple. The sets are composed of an amalgamation of chairs, benches, a table and two triangular triptych flats that are rotated during scene changes from mottled green to black to brown. The costume theme for the characters is an interesting directorial choice: jeans.

Moore said this choice was intended to tie the play to the present.

“Misogyny and sexism are still here in the present,” he said. “They aren’t just archaic problems that the characters are dealing with ... it’s something that’s very real today.”

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