Ever thought that what Shakespeare’s oeuvre really needs is some catchy 90s pop music and drastically fewer men involved in its execution? If your answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’, it’s probably safe to assume you’ve already made your way to the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre to see Tara Notcutt’s all-female punk-infused reimagining of every schoolgirl’s most-hated play, The Taming of the Shrew. If, however, you’re not so sure about mixing your Bard with your Blackstreet, this reviewer would urge you to reconsider.
In Notcutt’s production, the familiar text —about a flimsy plot concocted by two eager suitors to marry off an elder sister so her more agreeable and much-desired younger sister may be free to marry— is presented interspersed with music and lyrics sure to transport any child of the 90s back to their youth. Katherina, the shrew in apparent need of taming, enters —appropriately— to Meredith Brooks’s 1997 hit ‘Bitch’, and her fiery, defiant posing to this well-chosen song sets the tone for the rest of the show. (Prepare yourself for a lot of enthusiastically obscene hand gestures and an almost unbearably funny boy band montage.)
Alicia McCormick imbues her Kate with just the right mixture of youthful rebellion and unapologetic cleverness. She projects self-confidence and displays a formidable wit throughout the opening scenes with her father, Baptista (Lynita Crofford), sister, Bianca (Buhle Ngaba), and new suitor, Petruchio (Daneel van der Walt). Upon meeting Petruchio, McCormick’s Kate enjoys moments of delightful ditzyness that immediately endear her to the audience.
Van der Walt’s effortless charm and easy physicality make her an ideal casting choice for Petruchio. In this incarnation, the visitor from Verona is a rather greasy character who worms his way into the narrative with apparent ease (and definite ill intent).
In Crofford we have a cool, calm, and collected father-of-daughters. Baptista rules the stage whenever Crofford appears in her tailored suit and slicked-back hair.
Buhle Ngaba seems to be having the time of her life playing the flashy, flighty Bianca. Her every hair-flick and eye-roll get a laugh, and the character is presented as the perfect opposite to strong-willed Kate. Kathleen Stephens delivers an energetic and entertaining performance as Bianca’s preferred suitor, Lucentio, and Ann Juries delights as Lucentio’s long-suffering servant Grumio. The rapport between these two is particularly fun to watch. Tranio (a sleek Naledi Majola) and Biondello (Masali Baduza in fine form, especially when the alcohol kicks in) complete Lucentio’s set. One of Bianca’s other suitors, Hortensio, is brought to toe-curling, cringe-inducing life by Kate Pinchuck. (Honestly, that track suit will give you nightmares for weeks.)
As for Bianca’s most unlikely admirer, Dianne Simpson’s Gremio is a doddering delight. The greying would-be husband’s gyrating and lip-synching to Sex Bomb is one of the highlights of the show. In the Fifth Act, Simpson’s Vincentio is crisp and commanding —and horrifyingly lecherous. (If you manage not to flinch when Vincentio leers at the young women around him, you’re a stronger person than this reviewer.)
These performances are enough to make one forget the lamentably low-budget set design —which is ostensibly a result of a lack of financial support, it must be noted, as this production was vigorously crowd-funded by the director and her team. After a while, though, the somewhat shoddily-painted signs don’t seem all that distracting anymore. The playful use of lighting (as moveable lights are manipulated on stage) also adds to the generally high-energy atmosphere, and Mariechen Vosloo’s eye-catching costume design deserves a lot of praise.
Of course, it’s all fun and games until the emotional abuse starts. This staging’s strength undoubtedly lies in its unflinching exhibition of the text’s more discomfiting elements. Petruchio’s villainy is laid bare as soon as his wedding day arrives. From the moment he arrives, underdressed, annoyingly glib, and late to his own nuptials, the character ceases to display any of the roguish qualities that induced the tough-skinned Kate to develop an instant physical attraction to him and turn into an amusingly flustered, frantic version of herself. ‘By this reck’ning he is more shrew than she,’ Grumio’s sock puppet Curtis —yes, there’s a puppet show halfway through— remarks as Grumio recounts Petruchio’s approach to ‘taming’ Kate. These words ring especially true in this production, as Van der Walt’s Petruchio breaks his new wife down with the kind of gleeful malice usually associated with contemporary depictions of psychopathic killers. Petruchio never has to lift a hand to subdue Kate; she’s suitably terrified by the incessant gaslighting she’s forced to endure.
In the final scene, a broken Kate, stripped of her former passion and visibly trembling from head to foot, pleads with the other wives to realise that they are all ‘bound to serve, love, and obey’ while Petruchio stands over her smoking a menacing cigarette. One could have heard the proverbial pin drop at this point, as the audience had, to a (wo)man, forgotten the toe-tapping numbers and engaging banter that had preceded this chilling finale. They’d seen a woman reduced to a mere outline of her former self, and the effect had clearly hit home.
The Taming of the Shrew is produced by Siv Ngesi and The Pink Couch, in association with the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre Trust and LiquidMATCH Productions, and will close on the 1st of March. Tickets are available through Computicket.