NEW YORK — The battle of the sexes is waged anew as "The Taming of the Shrew" by William Shakespeare enjoys a fresh, robust off-Broadway presentation by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke on 42nd Street.
The well-matched pair Maggie Siff ("Sons of Anarchy" and "Mad Men") and Andy Grotelueschen ("Cymbeline") play the famously arguing newlyweds, Kate and Petruchio. Siff and Grotelueschen have the comedic chops and the magnetism to make this a vibrant "Shrew" despite the difficulty of presenting the material to a modern, post-feminism audience.
Despite being written in a time when women truly were, as Petruchio calculatedly proclaims after his wedding, "my chattel," director Arin Arbus has carefully staged the play with an eye toward Shakespeare's possible original emancipating intent, while mindful of the rise of feminism.
Arbus has also cleverly set the production in the American West, thereby eliminating the expectation of British accents: A troupe of American actors is putting on the play as they travel the frontier in the late 1800s.
Donyale Werle's colorful, multi-level, rustic wooden set nicely backgrounds the action as the battle of the sexes erupts onstage. From the onset, the men all conspire and use disguises or false identities to achieve their desired goals. The two sisters at the heart of the play can't resort to disguise, so the older one, Kate, expresses her disgust at being bartered for marriage by using ill-tempered rhetoric and tantrums to fend off any possible suitors.
Siff is both comical and irate as "the shrew." Far from portraying just a tantrum-prone, ill-tempered woman, Siff adds subtle colorations to her portrayal of Kate, by turns sullen, angry, conniving, bewildered and finally bemused by her new husband's unusual approach.
Kate's outspoken rudeness blocks the prospects for marriage for her attractive, docile and desirable younger sister, Bianca (played as both sweet and petulant by Kathryn Saffell, in her off-Broadway debut), as custom dictates that the elder sister must be married off first. Robert Langdon Lloyd is amiably wily as their wheeler-dealer father, Baptista.
Grotelueschen is a masterful buffoon, and his lusty yet nuanced Petruchio is a work of art. Despite his clownish behavior, Grotelueschen makes it clear that Petruchio feels Kate is a woman worth conquering, but to ultimately enjoy as an equal partner.
The large and assured cast includes John Keating, lending his unique twist to the part of servant Tranio, while Denis Butkus is youthfully confident as Lucentio, a lately arrived suitor for Bianca's hand. Lucentio schemes mightily to obtain Bianca from his game adversaries, elderly Gremio (John Christopher Jones) and the nervous Hortensio (Saxon Palmer.) John Pankow is memorably grumpy as Petruchio's servant, Grumio, and veteran actress Olwen Fouere lends dignity to a couple of small roles and a rowdy song about being a stood-up bride.
By the time Petruchio has "tamed" Kate, treating her much like a prisoner of war with starvation and sleeplessness, she has come to realize that he's a clever man worth being her partner in life. Her final lengthy speech, a public tribute to the superiority of her husband, is often criticized for being degrading to her formerly fierce, independent personality.
But as noted in the program and as presented with touches of irony by Siff, the speech can also be regarded as a sign of public respect by Kate toward her husband, a continuation of the hard-fought (literally), mutual admiration the pair have achieved.
The cast is decked out in a bevy of colorfully patterned and textured costumes by Anita Yavich. Michael Friedman's multifarious musical accompaniment is conveyed with enthusiasm by pianist Jonathan Mastro. In the end, both Kate and Petruchio appear to be well-pleased with their match, fulfilling Petruchio's early prophecy, "And where two raging fires meet together/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury."