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THEATER REVIEW The Taming of the Shrew
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-10-02

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Playwright: William Shakespeare, additional text by Ron West

At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $48-$88. Runs through: Nov. 12

Yes, it's Shakespeare and, yes, its text includes the male-female repartee we find so sexy, but there's no disguising a plot that revolves around a bunch of men bullying a lone woman. That's not the way we do things nowadays, so how do you make this repugnant behavior funny in 2017?

Barbara Gaines' solution is to frame the offending scenario in a dramatic universe ensuring that we comprehend the folly of its prejudices—in this case, Chicago during the summer of 1919, where the Columbia Women's Club are rehearsing an amateur production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew in competition with their fellow civic sororities for the distinction of having staged the Bard's entire canon.

On the eve of the Columbia Club's triumph, however, not only have torrential rains flooded the basement of their clubhouse, but outside, on Michigan Avenue, a protest rally in support of women's right to vote is in full fever. As the bluestocking matrons doggedly pursue their thespic activities, the commotion in the streets begins to infect the ladies' perceptions of their personae.

To be sure, some of the clubwomen already favor equal suffrage—Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne and Mrs. Fannie Emmanuel, for example, who play the flagrantly sexist Petruchio and Baptista, secure in their feminist convictions. Club chairwoman ( and resident portrayer of privileged Elizabethan males ) Mrs. Mildred Sherman, on the other glove, has instructed her husband to oppose the bill currently undergoing ratification hearings in the state senate and ordered her daughter, cast as the meek Bianca, to comply. Meek Mrs. Louise Harrison initially relishes her role of Katherine for reasons of vanity, but upon hearing herself declared a spouse's "chattel, barn, horse, ox, [his] anything" suddenly unleashes a cry of dissent raising the consciousness of her peers.

Chicago playgoers recalling other all-female and play-within-play versions of "Shrew" know that if these conceits are to be viewed as anything but actorly indulgence, the metaphor must be as immediately apparent as it is airtight. Fortunately, Second City's Ron West has constructed a backstage comedy replete with local references ( e.g., a rival theatrical society housed at 1616 Wells Street ) for an all-star ensemble led by Crystal Lucas-Perry and Alexandra Henrikson and anchored by sturdy precision-timed performances from veteran character divas E. Faye Butler, Hollis Resnick, Heidi Kettenring and Cindy Gold. ( What? Warblers aren't allowed to speak verse, too? )


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