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‘Taming of the Shrew’ review: Strong cast, but short of discipline

Cush Jumbo and Janet McTeer play couple Katherina

Cush Jumbo and Janet McTeer play couple Katherina and Petruchio in an all-women production of "The Taming of the Shrew." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “The Taming of the Shrew”

WHERE Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West

INFO Free; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org

BOTTOM LINE All-woman Shakespeare is subversive gender politics but lacks discipline

Of all Shakespeare’s major works, few seem as horrid today as “The Taming of the Shrew.” How are theater artists supposed to make a screwball romantic comedy about a new husband who breaks the spirit of a strong, unconventional woman by starving her of food, sleep and affection, then turns her into the Renaissance version of a Stepford Wife?

Most productions I’ve seen make an ineffectual effort to soften Petruchio’s nastiness and attempt to let us share a growing affection between him and Katherina, the headstrong older daughter whose rich father pays a stranger to marry her. The last time I saw “Shrew” in Central Park was in 1990, and even the charms of Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman — in a Wild West update — couldn’t distract from the unpleasantness of the story.

I can’t say that Phyllida Lloyd’s all-women production of “Shrew” in Central Park made me see this supposed farce, deep down, as something other than a tragedy. But the British director, who made her fortune with the cheerfully silly “Mamma Mia!,” has been powerfully leading the female counter to today’s all-male Shakespeare trend. Her “Julius Caesar” in Brooklyn in 2013 was a revelation.

However, that was a drama, moved to a women’s prison but otherwise played honestly. “Shrew” — wonderfully cast with Janet McTeer as Petruchio and Cush Jumbo as the unruly heroine — is full of subversive testosterone-winking acknowledgement of the comedy’s misogyny.

This makes for plenty of pointed, unstated gender satire mixed with lots of deconstructed foolish fun. Instead of trying to disguise the fact that the play hates women, the production revels in it by making clear that the real joke’s on men. Is that better? Sure, maybe, why not?

Instead of Shakespeare’s introduction, things begin with an absurd beauty pageant in semi-modern Italy at what looks like a ramshackle village circus. (Imaginative sets and costumes are by Mark Thompson). A voice that sounds like a certain presumptive Republican candidate for president does the announcing. Katherina’s perfect younger sister Bianca (played with a lovely bratty undercurrent by Gayle Rankin), is lugged around in a wheelbarrow by glum, rebellious Kate—dressed in a perfect ridiculous little gingham pinafore with a petticoat and a grimace.

Enter Petruchio, played by McTeer with the lean, lanky, laconic swagger of a Sam Shepard cowboy. He makes the deal with the father (Latanya Richardson Jackson) and drags his prize away.

The problem—and, ultimately, it is a problem—is that we still don’t understand these characters. Petruchio never even begins to care about Katherina. Does she really start to care about him?

There are many giddy pleasures, including references to Gilbert and Sullivan, “Gone With the Wind,” “Carmen,” “Lady and the Tramp,” the smug male role in ballroom dancing and audience asides. But even with a surprise ending, ultimately, we miss the discipline, the psychological underpinning that might have made “Shrew” less of a revenge joke and more of a Shakespearean reclamation.

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