Bianca (Victoria Nassif) and Hortensio (William Elsman) in ‘Taming of the Shrew.’

Bianca (Victoria Nassif) and Hortensio (William Elsman) in ‘Taming of the Shrew.’

Theater companies always seem to approach Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as a problem to be solved—which is understandable, since the play is, on one level, pretty much a celebration of domestic abuse. Even more bizarrely—and unlike that other politically incorrect terror from the First Folio, The Merchant of Venice—it’s a wacky comedy.

Over the course of many productions, I’ve seen directors try everything to make the most sexist parts of this play go down smoother. Sarcasm is the most common weapon of choice—as in “let’s all act like we know this is terrible stuff”—but the least effective. If you’re going to present this play, there’s really no point in being embarrassed about it. Paul Whitworth handled it most brilliantly in 2004, when he staged both Shrew and the tables-turning sequel by John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize (better known as The Tamer Tamed).

But for this production, director Edward Morgan has more or less thrown caution to the wind, if anything playing up the battle of the sexes that causes other producers so much hand wringing. In the process, he’s made Shrew laugh-out-loud funny again; in fact, this may be the most purely entertaining take on Taming of the Shrew you ever see.

I’m sorry, but actors trying to come off as cool, sophisticated and, worst of all, “above the material” is just not funny. Morgan’s male cast members, on the other hand, are willing to play their characters as raging idiots, at times reaching Monty Python levels of absurd arrogance, but always with complete conviction in what they’re saying and doing. Fred Arsenault plays Petruchio, the famed shrew tamer, like some kind of cross between Captain Kirk and Phil Hartman, full of incredible and inexplicable straight-faced bluster. At one point, he and his servant Grumio (played by Conan McCarty) are practically doing Abbott and Costello. William Elsman’s Hortensio, one of the trio of suitors plotting for the love of the shrew’s sister Bianca, maintains a similarly side-splitting air of empty-headedness, mistakenly convinced he is always the smartest guy in the room. Even Lucentio, normally portrayed as the brave and clever hero, gets a dose of charming dumbassedness from Elvin McRae.

The women go for broke, as well, though Kate (Gretchen Hall) and Bianca (Victoria Nassif) are mostly raging straight women for the men’s comic antics.
The larger-than-life hyper-reality they all conjoin to create is somewhat explained by the framing device, a little-seen addition that comes from the mysterious play The Taming of A Shrew, which also came out in the early 1590s, and may or may not have been an early draft of The Shrew written by Shakespeare. It’s interesting on an intellectual level, but otherwise this is a completely visceral approach.

Other productions may pussyfoot around the material, but SSC’s Shrew goes to 11.

The Taming of the Shrew runs in UCSC’s Festival Glen through Sept. 1.