Kiss Me, Kate

When I was a high school senior and the teacher who staged the school plays — her name was Mary Price — picked Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, there was a lot of moaning and groaning. Why do we have to perform in some dusty old play from ce

The Taming of the Shrew at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
The Taming of the Shrew at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

When I was in high school, our English lit curriculum included plays by Shakespeare: Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet were required reading. I suppose they were chosen because the former had legitimate historic roots that someone deemed educational and the latter was about young love (ill-fated, tragic love at that) between teenagers whose hormones were kicking in, feelings we might relate to but behavior we should not emulate. Regardless, we were not especially moved by these works, usually read aloud by kids in a classroom with no grasp of the vocabulary or Shakespeare’s poetry, let alone the highfalutin, antique way everyone spoke.

When I was a high school senior and the teacher who staged the school plays — her name was Mary Price — picked Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, there was a lot of moaning and groaning. Why do we have to perform in some dusty old play from centuries earlier? Well, Mrs. Price assured us this one would be fun. We believed her and gave it a chance. I’m remembering this experience as I prepare to see Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of Shrew, opening on Friday (it runs through April 25). 

Having worked on the show all those years ago, I still remember passages of text and numerous comic scenes. I played Baptista, the beleaguered father of Kate, the “shrew” of the play’s title. She is so strong-willed and stubborn that, despite Baptista’s fortune, no one in Padua will consider marrying her. Eager suitors are lining up to court Baptista’s sweet-tempered and beautiful younger daughter, but they must wait for fearsome Kate to be wed before they can vie for Bianca. They recruit a brash fortune-seeker named Petruchio who brags that he can tame a woman, no matter how cantankerous she might be. But in Kate he might have met his match.

There’s a great deal of tomfoolery surrounding the “taming” of Kate. Petruchio berates her, starves her and even has some physical combat with her. Their battles are full of wit and verbal sparring. As if that’s not enough, the subplot of Bianca’s suitors who take on disguises and concoct harebrained schemes to win her love offers a secondary level of hilarious comedy.

We had a blast with our high school production, proving Mrs. Price’s wisdom in selecting it. Several years later, when I was a senior in college, an opportunity to perform in another production of The Taming of the Shrew came my way. I told no one I had been in it before, but somehow I ended up cast yet again as the fretful father Baptista. This time around Kate was played by a precocious freshman named Julie Taymor. (She went on to great things, including a MacArthur “genius grant” and fame as the creator of the stage musical of The Lion King, which is being presented in Cincinnati this month.) Returning to Shrew was another great experience, still further embedding the show in my brain cells and ensuring that Shakespeare’s 1590 comedy would remain one of my favorites.

As a result, it’s with great pleasure that I look forward to Cincy Shakes’ production, being staged by guest director Kevin Hammond, cofounder and artistic director of Humber River Shakespeare in Toronto and an assistant director at Canada’s renowned Stratford Festival. Hammond’s cast features two veterans of the Shakespeare company in the leading roles: Nick Rose, one of CSC’s founders, will play the rambunctious and egotistical Petruchio, while versatile Kelly Mengelkoch will bring her spark to the unruly Kate. It should be a marriage made in … well, let’s just say, “somewhere spirited.”

The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and deliberately outrageous works. Its story has sparked wild disagreement: Is it an offensive piece of misogyny or a tongue-in-cheek celebration of feminism? In Kate’s concluding speech at her wedding feast, there’s plenty of room for either interpretation. It’s been staged in many ways — fierce, docile, pragmatic, obedient or feisty — and proponents at opposite ends of this debate still argue which side is right after 425 years. 

In a 1983 study of women in the age of Shakespeare, literary scholar Lisa Jardine wrote, “Depending on how we take her tone, Kate is seriously tamed, is ironic at Petruchio’s expense, has learned comradeship and harmonious co-existence, or will remain a shrew till her death.” Those many possibilities make this show eternally fascinating and entertaining for theatergoers. I’m eager to see how the upcoming production at Cincy Shakes plays this amusing battle of the sexes.


CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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