“The Taming of the Shrew” is infamously difficult to adapt due to its violent misogyny, but director Christopher V. Edwards flips the script with Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s gender-bending production.
The setting is modernized to a red-hued ‘70s Disco with fun and colorful costuming thanks to Ben Lieberson and Chelsea Kerl. The show stays faithful to Shakespeare’s text with only two major divergences that still manage to shift the entire narrative: the character of Sly and the ending. In the original’s often-cut introduction, the drunk Sly is duped into believing he is a nobleman for whom the subsequent play-within-a-play is performed. Here Sly, played by Michael Broadhurst, is instead convinced he is a woman and thrust into performing as Katherine, the titular shrew.
Broadhurst has been cast as the only man playing against women and nonbinary actors. Sly is tricked by the Disco’s workers as a pseudo-punishment for his harassment and chauvinism. The rest of the cast don clown noses and over-the-top personas for the play, mocking their characters’ hypermasculinity and casual sexism. The marvelous delivery of jokes, paired with plenty of gags and prop-comedy, earned multiple full-audience laughs. Meanwhile, Sly, alongside Katherine, is slowly broken down and forced to reckon with the weight of subjugation. It is important to note that the play uses its gender-bending as a narrative to challenge the bigotry of both Sly and the original text, not as a cheap punchline. The play performs a difficult balancing act between comedy and tragedy with the dissonance between the two only adding to the experience.
“The Taming of the Shrew” is not an easy play to watch. Adaptations, like the 1999 movie, “10 Things I Hate About You,” often sand down the harshest parts to make it more palatable for modern audiences. ASP refuses to take this route, not shying away from how Katherine is abused, starved, and threatened throughout the play. Shakespeare is deservedly celebrated for his skills, but it serves no one to ignore and hide the less savory aspects of his work. The show is haunted by Shakespeare’s and the legacy of violence against women that the original perpetuates.
The scenes of Katherine’s “taming” are appropriately gut-wrenching and painful, bolstered by Patrice Jean-Baptiste’s standout performance as Petruchio. The switch between the light-hearted shenanigans of Bianca (Julia Hertzberg) and her suitors and the devastating scenes of Katherine and Petruchio is jarring in a way that reminds you that the play was originally considered a comedy, abuse and all. This culminates in the wretched final monologue and aptly abrupt ending.
(Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” continues through October 1 in The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, 525 Washington St., Boston, Massachusetts. For show times, tickets and more information, visit actorsshakespeareproject.org/shrew)