Taming of the Shrew triumphs in Mouat Park

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The term “gaslighting” is reaching new prominence in the #MeToo era, as society comes to terms with the idea that making a woman doubt her own perceptions and experiences is yet another form of abuse.

As explained in a Guardian newspaper story last month, the term refers to “a malicious form of mental abuse designed to alter the victim’s perception of reality” and gets its name from the singly awful marital strategy laid out in the 1938 play Gas Light. Yet the practice has an even earlier provenance in fictional marriages, with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew providing a near textbook example.

Within this context, exitStageLeft’s production of the play for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park is particularly timely. It also accomplishes several goals of good theatre: it entertains, it illuminates high-quality material and it produces discussion long after the “curtain” falls (which in this case means darkness at Mouat Park).

Under the imaginative twist devised by director Jeffrey Renn, women actors take on the many male roles written into the play and young men play the few female characters.

Company co-founder Christina Penhale has truly risen to the occasion in playing leading male Petruchio. She makes for a surprisingly handsome man; with her flowing hair and handlebar mustache, her look is reminiscent of Billy Crudup in Almost Famous. But she inhabits the character so well, there is no sense of a woman in drag.

Penhale becomes Petruchio to the core, arriving at a strategy of dominance that is regrettable but ultimately practical while projecting an air of magnetic charisma. He is gaslighting the entire society of the mission, not just his unwilling wife.

Charlie Beaver likewise steps into his role as the “shrew” Katharina, who doesn’t even get to keep her first name under the relationship and becomes Kate instead. He holds his character rigid in haughty anger, moving into disbelief and something close to fear before she accepts her husband’s view of things. The gender-reverse casting allows the audience to accept Kate’s capitulation without becoming too uncomfortable, and still ask plenty of questions about what just happened.

Despite all the topical aspects, The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy at heart and audiences will laugh many times at the silliness afforded to the supporting characters. Combined with a setting shifted to the “Mission San Antonio de Padua” in California, the reversal allows women to portray exaggerated masculinity with terrific swagger and glee. The Western setting also works to anchor the story in small but important ways. Visually, having the male characters sport long hair under their hats makes perfect sense. The character’s Italian names meanwhile transfer easily to a Spanish mission setting where Zorro would not be out of place.

For more on this story, see the July 4, 2018 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online. Or go see the play! 

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