A college kid falls for a local girl and hopes to marry her. So do two other guys who saw her first. The girl’s father won’t allow her to wed anyone until her older sister Kate gets hitched, but, no one wants to marry Kate because she’s just too mean. When a gold digger from out of town agrees to woo her, he winds up employing unconventional, highly questionable methods. A battle of wits and words ensues, with love the winner.
Such is the gist of the play-within-a-play in The Taming of the Shrew, a comedy written in the late 1500s by the incomparable William Shakespeare. As with so many of the Bard’s works, it’s chock-full of bawdy humor, soaring prose, disguises and surprises. The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) puts its own twist on the romantic tale with a free, outdoor production staged at Roger Williams National Memorial this month.
The Taming of the Shrew was the first Shakespeare play that Bob Colonna, TRIST’s founder and artistic director, ever saw. He recalls walking into the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego back in ’62, not expecting to follow the show due to the old-fashioned language. “I laughed myself crazy. And I thought, wow, this is not German. This is English. I get it!”
Bob’s concern about “getting” Shakespeare is a common one, especially for those who only meet the playwright in English class. As he puts it, “This terrible thing happens to us in high school where it becomes about school, it becomes about exams. It falls in there somewhere between trigonometry and the state capitals. It’s just something that we have to do, that we have to learn. Some of us never go back, and it’s a shame. It’s really fun stuff.”
In an effort to make Shakespeare more accessible, TRIST avoids period costumes. Bob explains, “The minute someone walks onstage, I want the audience to know who it is. And if everybody’s in tights and pumpkin pants and long skirts, you really can’t tell them apart.”
TRIST also favors contemporary settings. The Taming of the Shrew traditionally takes place in Italy, but TRIST’s production suggests a closer locale: Federal Hill. Accordingly, Bob expects the actors’ accents to sound “more Rhode Island than Elizabethan England.” And that college kid who falls in love? Well, he clearly goes to Brown.
One challenge The Taming of the Shrew presents for modern viewers is its seemingly misogynistic message. The title alone sounds problematic. Bob doesn’t plan to end the play with a wink, but does encourage a more subtle interpretation. “I think the fun for Kate is not that she’s tamed, but that she finds a worthy opponent for the first time,” he points out, noting that Shakespeare’s female characters are often stronger than their male counterparts. “Juliet is smarter than Romeo. Cleopatra is way smarter than Mark Antony. Lady Macbeth, obviously.” Kate is no exception.
A new, strong female character appears in TRIST’s Shrew. Bob himself plays the role of Kate’s father Baptista, in drag, as her mother. The lively cast also features Cherylee Dumas as Kate, David Kane as her suitor Petruchio, Jackie Aguirre as Kate’s sister Bianca, and Patrick Connolly, Geoff White, and Andrew Conley as Bianca’s beaus, backed by a talented ensemble. “Bring your beach chairs, bring your towels, bring your picnics and prepare to have a good time,” Bob urges. “And don’t worry, you’ll understand it.”
The Taming of the Shrew
The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST)
Thursday-Sunday evenings at 8pm
Performing through June 6
Roger Williams National Memorial
282 North Main Street