STRATFORD, ON—I’ve never seen a Taming of the Shrew that is quite so, well, shrewish. Deborah Hay, playing Katherina, rages around the stage, her hair mushrooming in all sorts of directions, her shrieking voice piercing clear through the Festival Theatre. It is a shocking, audacious performance, as this comedy has troubled critics, audiences, and actors for some time—what to do with the central relationship, in which Petruchio (Ben Carlson) gradually abuses his wife into submission, or with Kate’s infamous, forty-line monologue, in which she advises her fellow wives to “place your hands below your husband’s foot”? Director Chris Abraham and his cast have come up with an ingenious solution: play it straight, read it literally, and so long as the production is overflowing with mirth and good intentions, the audience will accept it.
It helps that this version begins transparently, as it were, by reminding us (even more than Shakespeare does) that we are seeing a play—as the audience enters the theater, actors are fussing with their costumes. Tom Rooney walks onstage to haver briefly about his art before being interrupted by Ms. Hay. Mr. Carlson, doubling as the drunk Christopher Sly, stands up from his seat and begins loudly boasting of his credibility as a British blogger (perhaps the most convincing plant I have seen in quite some time). The entire Shrew, of course, is a play-within-a-play, in which a nobleman convinces the tinker Christopher Sly that he is too is a lord, and when Sly attempts to bed his “wife,” he is shown “a pleasant comedy” as a distraction. Here, Ms. Hay plays the nobleman, so that, before we see Mr. Carlson verbally and physically assault Ms. Hay, we see the reverse; the result is a delightfully defanged, unexpectedly even-handed Shrew.
Being surprised by a play one loves is one of the rarest and most fulfilling pleasures of theater-going. This Taming of the Shrew, which is simple only to be smart, is undoubtedly the highlight of an already extraordinary season at Stratford.