Woodward Shakespeare Festival last performed "The Taming of the Shrew" in 2007. That production was a blustery, garish whirlwind whose Petruchio wore a fluorescent costume that made him look like a cross between a pirate and a Caltrans worker on an acid trip.
The company's amiable and well-crafted new "Shrew" is a lot gentler and more thoughtful this time around. (And the costumes can't be used to reroute traffic on Highway 99.) But this newer production does share one thing with its predecessor: a nontraditional take on the play. Director Aaron Spjute uses an all-female cast for this "Shrew." Along with the traditional female roles, women play the men in gender-specific costumes. Pronouns haven't been changed.
Thus an amusing and swaggering Suzanne Grazyna plays Petruchio — the wife-seeking rake out to subdue a wealthy "shrew" — as a man, with all the theatrical testosterone that choice implies. And Katherina (a well-cast Donna Halliburton), the tamed of the title, relates to this new masculine presence in her life as sure as if "he" had the requisite X and Y chromosomes. Fake beards and interpretations of male bluster abound.
An amusing premise? Sure. But it also sounds as if it could be listlessly campy, a joke that gets thinner as the evening progresses. Or, worse yet, this "Shrew" could have turned sour and preachy on us, becoming a joyless running commentary on the play's well-known misogyny.
Spjute (mostly) doesn't let that happen. He imbues the production with a studious, attentive feel that preserves the silliness without the whole thing descending into sloppy war-of-the-sexes buffoonery. And his strong ensemble cast, packed with deep-bench talent playing multiple roles, brings a tight-knit and cohesive feel to the proceedings.
Spjute is careful to honor Shakespeare's framing device, which gives us a play within a play. The drunken tinker Christopher Sly (played by a delightful Renee Newlove, whose stage snore is of epic proportions) is pranked into thinking he's a nobleman. One of his perks: He gets to watch a play performed in his honor.
A merry band of players shows up in a big cart that is wheeled up through the center aisle and onto the Woodward stage, and from there — as costumes and props are pulled out in a frenzy — we get the story of Petruchio and Katherina.
Katherina's father, Baptista (played with amusing vigor by Jessica Reedy), won't allow his other daughter, Bianca (a deft Sarah Sherwood), who is being pursued by a host of suitors, to get married until the surly, unmanageable Katherina can be wed. Petruchio thinks he's up for the challenge.
Along the way, there are plenty of comic complications including disguises, cross-dressing, ardent lovers, gender confusion and silly plot machinations. Shakespeare plays with the idea of perception and reality, to the point that Petruchio — who goes from ardent wooer to abusive new husband — famously forces Katherina to proclaim that the sun is the moon.
I'll be frank: There are parts of "Shrew" that can be hard for me to stomach in terms of its treatment of women. (And this isn't just a modern-era thing: It's been that way for centuries.) Even when you view the play through the fashionable lens of irony, Katherina's final entreaty for wives to obey their husbands is groan-worthy, and Petruchio's treatment of his wife is like watching bad dog training.
I do grant that the all-woman cast helps mitigate the ickiness. At the same time, Spjute's creative concept can also work against him. There's little to no sexual crackle in this production, which makes the war-of-the-sexes conceit a little bland. I know, I know — I want the play to be less offensive and yet more feisty. See why I think the play is problematic?
Standouts in the strong cast include Emily Miller as an amusing Grumio, Alissa Cummings as a gregarious Hortensio and GJ Thelin as a kinetic Vincentio. Kathie Mollica's rich-looking period costumes are impressive, some of the best I've seen in recent Woodward productions.
Key to this production, however, is Spjute's astute, deliberate and yet playful direction. The choices he makes are strong. (I love how we get to watch the actors change costumes "backstage" behind the parked cart, a further riff on perception and reality, and it's clever to bring Christopher Sly back into the action late in the play to play the role of the Widow.)
Consider what Petruchio wears to his wedding. The "inappropriate attire" called for in the script turns out to be a sparkly, billowing, taffeta-style gown.
There we have it, then: Petruchio the man, played by a woman, wearing a princess prom dress to his wedding. It's an inspiring and wacky touch in a nimble production.
"The Taming of the Shrew," 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Aug. 16, Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage in Woodward Park. Free, but $10 reserved seats available; park's car-entrance fee applies. www.woodwardshakespeare.org, (559) 927-3485.
2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3, at the Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. www.selmaartscenter.com. $10