MSC Takes a Different Approach to "Taming of the Shrew"

 As the shrewish Katherine, Sarah Z. Johnson bears her teeth. 

As the shrewish Katherine, Sarah Z. Johnson bears her teeth. 

Petruchio and Kate are at it again. In one of the most contentious romances ever written, a penniless and eccentric man agrees to marry a notoriously difficult woman and make her obey him. But the Madison Shakespeare Company’s production of Taming of the Shrew, at the Edgewood College Amphitheater, strays very far away from Shakespeare’s original script. It also offers an experience that’s markedly different from other classical theaters.

Madison Shakespeare has been producing works by the bard, performed in the open air, since 2012. This is a gutsy thing to do considering that American Players Theatre, one of the top classical theaters in the country, is doing the same thing in Spring Green, about 40 minutes away. But if APT is a major league baseball team like the Brewers, MSC is a minor league team, like the Mallards. Both entities work to entertain their audiences, but the tone and caliber of the events are distinctly separate.

Before the actors spoke their first lines of Shrew, for instance, there was a comedy skit, a shameless plug for all of us to promote MSC on Facebook, a Shakespeare trivia quiz, a free pizza coupon giveaway, and a sing-along to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” accompanied on the ukulele. People brought their own snacks and munched on them throughout the show. This is entertaining stuff that got everyone in the mood for a light afternoon, including the kids in the audience and a toddler, balanced on her dad’s lap. Inclusive family fun.

And the actual show didn’t take itself too seriously. Stripped down to bare bones, the set consisted of one bench. The actors performed in modern dress. One actor’s disguise consisted of a ridiculously large black mustache. At one point a plate of hot dogs — dressed with condiments courtesy of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton — was handed to a member of the crowd to enjoy. And the script, edited and adapted Sarah Z. Johnson, was whittled down to 1 ½ hours from the normal 2 ½.

The talent within the 15-member cast varied greatly, but what individuals lacked in skill, they generally made up for with enthusiasm. And several performances were terrific, including Joshua Woolfolk’s jovial Petruchio and Jason Compton’s scheming Tranio. Both of these actors had a firm grasp on the language and articulated their parts beautifully.

The real problem with this production was the script. A notoriously difficult story to perform in the era of modern feminism and #metoo, many companies eschew the play because its treatment of women is simply not funny or acceptable anymore. Some directors get around those difficulties with stage business that undermines the misogyny in many scenes, and some make cuts of the most offensive lines. Johnson decided to cut ALL the offending lines, leaving the players with only the happy bits.

This also removes much of the conflict in the play and changes the characters’ arcs significantly. Petruchio is such a nice guy in this version! And Katherine is mad about something, but the production doesn’t make it clear exactly what’s got her enraged. Midway through the play Katherine suddenly falls in love with Petruchio, which is nice since he seems like a great match, but there’s no indication where the tipping point was to move her from hate to adoration.

So like a minor league baseball game, where actual talent is secondary to the fun of the sport and there’s no trip to the World Series on the line, MSC’s Taming of the Shrew is a nice excuse to sit outside on a sunny summer afternoon. But it’s not much more than that.