Given the level of directorial interpolation and deletion going on in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Co.’s “Taming of the Shrew,” this year’s free Shakespeare on the Boston Common, it is more than a little odd and offensive that the ending ran as written in the late 16th century — with the explosive Katharina becoming an obedient servant to Petruchio, her new husband, and telling other wives at length that “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign.” Petruchio makes 100 crowns off this display, winning it from other husbands.
Director Steven Maler set the play in Boston’s North End in the 1950s, which is about the last time Katharina’s sentiments might have been so enthusiastically embraced. It’s an entertaining conceit, but putting “Shrew” into a time capsule, even one back only 50 or so years, doesn’t really forgive the faithfulness to the script. Earlier in the show, when Lucentio urges other characters to “give him head,” meaning listen, another character turns away, muttering he doesn’t want to see any such thing.
Funny, but contemporary, and it’s cha cha-ing along a pretty fine line to make the play relevant in such a way to modern audiences without acknowledging that the resolution of the play, as written, is agonizingly sexist. To say the reaction to “give him head” and Katharina’s speech are both items for a time capsule, and thus acceptable as such to a modern audience, is glib; Lucentio and the others on stage share an idiom, so there’s no getting around that misunderstanding “give him head” is a comment to people in 2006, not the 1950s. There are Shakespeare purists who wouldn’t want to change the message of the play’s ending, but once you start screwing around with the text to make three hours of “Shrew” fly by, setting it in “Bostonia,” making Petruchio’s horse into a Vespa and such, you start to lose moral authority on leaving the sexism intact.
It would have been so easy to get around the excruciating nature of Katharina’s speech, too. As the people with whom I saw the play pointed out, Petruchio and Katharina could have been shown to be in collusion — as equals — to win the 100 crowns by falsely portraying her to be a meek and subservient woman.
This inadequate amount of effort, interestingly, reflected itself in a very different and very physical way on the production, which ended Sunday. The set for the play was beautiful, clever and accomplished, but it was also set low enough that much of the onstage action was impossible to see from only several meters back. It’s a mystery why set designer John Coyne couldn’t raise the action high enough over the lawn that audience members could see the action no matter how far back they sat.
The director and set designer made impressive efforts in their respective arenas, and each seemed to make decisions to hold back that caused discomfort to the audience — or, at least, to audience members with enough distance to appreciate what was lacking.