A Sly New Take On ‘Taming of The Shrew’

Aside from annual in-the–park offerings, there really isn’t a lot of opportunity for South Floridians to engage with the work of William Shakespeare. Thus, it’s actually rather exciting to see Thinking Cap Theatre taking on the timeless work of the celebrated playwright. And while Taming of the Shrew probably wouldn’t have been my first pick from the Bard’s expansive repertoire- in large part due to the fairly blatant misogynistic implications of the somewhat sophomoric plot- director Nicole Stodard makes an admirable effort to mitigate these implications with a distinct reimagining. 

And while her additions don’t exactly amount to a coherent modern interpretation of the 400 year old work, they do succeed to some degree in enlivening the proceedings. In other words: while Stodard can’t exactly “tame” Shrew’s script into an entirely unproblematic outing, she does make it different enough to offer something new to even audience members who have already seen Taming several times over – and in the process adds in a lot of fun!

This makes itself known even before the start of the play proper, in a smoothly choreographed pre-show sequence that establishes Stodard’s setting for the “frame story” of Shrew as a modern day corporate office. That this is immediately obvious is also thanks to the work of Set & Prop Designer Alyiece Moretto-Watkins as well as Stodard doubling as costume designer. Though each character’s initial outfit would be not out-of-place in a 21st century office, Stodard also leaves ample room in these corporate uniforms for these characters to later transform into their Shakespearean counterparts. 

To actualize this vision, Stodard has also assembled a diverse cast of 10 South Florida actors, who, with the help of some strategic doubling, take on a full 20 different roles.  Instead of a garden variety drunkard, Bill Schwartz’sanimated  Christopher Sly is also the head of this corporation, and the story-within-a-story of Shrew commences when two “Players” embodied by actors Robert Ayala and Randy Coleman engage Sly and his team in a Diversity Equity and Inclusion workshop. 

In another of the more notable of Stodard’s conceptual twists, this is true even of the show’s two leads, Karen Stephens and Noah Levine, who, after beginning the show respectively playing Kate and Petruchio, are given the chance to switch parts halfway through! 

While this duo of performers were plenty impressive in their original parts, they were even more so after pulling off this major reversal, which also upped the play’s entertainment value tenfold. Though Stephens had made for a feisty Kate, she was given the opportunity to show even more of her intensity when transforming into a formidable Petruchio. And while Levine had made for a charming and distinguished Petruchio, his energy too seemed almost better suited to his appearance as a genteel but increasingly frenzied second act Kate. 

I assume that Stodard intended with this switcheroo to get audiences to question their assumptions about the play’s gender politics, and in doing so succeeded in at least some limited sense. But as satisfying as it was to watch Stephens taking the reins on the couple’s disturbed dynamic, the fact remained that she and Levine were only playing characters of their opposite gender while still telling a story in which a man abuses and gaslights a once-strong woman into complete subservience. 

The implications of this role-switch-up were also undermined by the fact that the actors switched back to their former roles before the play’s controversial conclusion, in which Kate expresses in a lengthy monologue the extent to which she has been “tamed” by her husband. While a closing visual gesture courtesy of Bree-Anna Obst’s projection and lighting design implied another reversal was in the pipeline, the extent of the back and forth only served to muddle the message. 

But aside from these big-picture issues, there are plenty of places where Shrew succeeds as a Shakespearean comedy on a moment-to-moment basis. Naturally, some such highlights could be found in Kate and Petruchio’s battle of wits, or arose from the tomfoolery of the Players in the aforementioned frame sequence. There were also more than a few laughs to be found in a prominent slapstick-heavy subplot centering on Kate’s younger sister Bianca, the girls’ father having forbidden her from marrying until her shrewish older sister can find a match first. 

As is helpfully clarified by the Players’ narration of some of Shakespeare’s stage directions, her potential suitors thus end up resorting to disguising themselves as tutors to have a chance at winning her heart. Melissa Ann Hubicsak brings a winning flirtatious charm to her role as Bianca, well-matched with a suave Phillip Andrew Santiago as her eventual beau Lucentio. Backing him up is Cameron Holder as his faithful servant Tranio, who helps Lucentio pull off the caper, as Robert Ayala and Pete Rogan prove themselves similarly valuable as Lucentio’s romantic rivals. In another quasi-feminist twist, capable actress Beverly Blanchette gets a chance to take on the traditionally male role of Baptista along with a few other small parts. 

Meanwhile, the multi talented Obst & Stodard also served as the show’s sound designers, and found plenty of occasion to inject amusing interludes of modern music into the otherwise old-fashioned text. And  especially considering you’ve only got around a week left to catch Thinking Cap’s take on this eternal Shakespearean classic, I would personally suggest catching it sooner rather than later!

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