Chicago Shakespeare Theater delivers inspired all-female 'Shrew'

  • Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry), top, does his best to tame Katherine (Alexandra Henrikson) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's all-female production of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew."

    Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry), top, does his best to tame Katherine (Alexandra Henrikson) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's all-female production of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 9/29/2017 3:53 PM

The one constant in life is change. Our social, political, cultural and economic landscape shifts, and we adapt.

But rarely does change happen all at once. More often than not it occurs incrementally and requires communal effort. But inevitably, change comes.

 

That principle drives Chicago Shakespeare Theater's spirited, all-female production of "The Taming of the Shrew," in which the members of an early 20th-century women's club find themselves transformed -- even liberated -- after they stage one of William Shakespeare's most problematic plays.

As in the original, director Barbara Gaines' inspired version of Shakespeare's thorny battle of the sexes unfolds as a play-within-a-play. In this case, the frame comes courtesy of Second City writer and associate artistic director Ron West, who previously penned additional dialogue for Gaines' "The Comedy of Errors" in 2008.

West's keen, amusing scenes -- peppered with contemporary references to Chicago construction, the Cubs, partisan political bickering and popular vote totals -- are interspersed among Shakespeare's in Gaines' cleverly conceived production.

The action unfolds in 1919 Chicago, on the day the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the Constitution's 19th Amendment granting women suffrage. As demonstrators take to Chicago's streets, the members of the Columbia Women's Club gather in their sumptuous drawing room (kudos to set designer Kevin Depinet) to rehearse Shakespeare's persistently problematic "Shrew." It marks the last of Shakespeare's plays to be performed by the group -- upper-middle class married women, except for Hollis Resnik's comical custodian Peter and Kate Marie Smith's earnest undergraduate Olivia Twist -- whose members are determined to complete the playwright's canon before a rival club beats them to it.

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Baptista (E. Faye Butler), left, confers with Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry) who offers to marry Baptista's fiery older daughter Katherine in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's all-female production of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew."
Baptista (E. Faye Butler), left, confers with Petruchio (Crystal Lucas-Perry) who offers to marry Baptista's fiery older daughter Katherine in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's all-female production of William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Presiding over the club is the socially and politically connected Mildred Sherman (Rita Rehn), a senator's wife and mother to the production's Bianca (Olivia Washington). Rehn's Sherman plays the servant Grumio, but she spends much of her time giving notes and criticizing her daughter Emily Ingersoll, whose fraught relationship with her mother reflects the tension that often develops between increasingly independent young adult women and their mothers.

Helming the club's production is Heidi Kettenring's Dorothy Mercer, a quick-thinking pragmatist who plays Tranio, "Shrew's" ever-resourceful "fixer."

Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines sets her all-female production of "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1919 Chicago, at the same time the U.S. Senate was debating the 19th amendment granting women suffrage.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines sets her all-female production of "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1919 Chicago, at the same time the U.S. Senate was debating the 19th amendment granting women suffrage. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tranio serves the young nobleman Lucentio (Smith) who, having fallen in love with Bianca, must remove her suitors Hortensio (Tina Gluschenko) and Gremio (a deliciously lascivious Resnik). Unfortunately for Lucentio, Bianca's father, Baptista (E. Faye Butler), won't consent to Bianca's marriage until he marries off her older sister, the defiant Katherine, who is played by Alexandra Henrikson's pampered socialite Louise Harrison. It's Louise who experiences the most profound transformation of all the Columbia Women's Club thespians, moving from the sidelines to the front lines of the women's movement as a result of her experience.

Charged with taming the fiery Katherine is Petruchio, (the brilliant Crystal Lucas-Perry), who is played by a reasoned suffragette named Victoria Van Dyne.

The production marks the Chicago debuts of Lucas-Perry and Henrikson, who more than hold their own among the accomplished theater artists who make up the cast, which also includes Lillian Castillo, Cindy Gold, Ann James and Faith Servant.

Hortensio (Tina Gluschenko, in blue) and Baptista (E. Faye Butler), second from left, celebrate the marriage of Baptista's daughter Bianca (Olivia Washington, in gown) in "The Taming of the Shrew."
Hortensio (Tina Gluschenko, in blue) and Baptista (E. Faye Butler), second from left, celebrate the marriage of Baptista's daughter Bianca (Olivia Washington, in gown) in "The Taming of the Shrew." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Not only is Henrikson's Katherine appropriately fiery, she's also deeply thoughtful. As for Lucas-Perry, her Petruchio is among the finest I've seen. Lucas-Perry's bluster and swagger, the space she commands and the resonance of her voice makes us forget the role is being played by a woman. Brava.

But for all of this production's verve and ingenuity, "The Taming of the Shrew" remains a vexing play. We perceive just how troubling through the pained expressions of the club members as Petruchio claims his property and Katherine submits to his will. And yet these women, these early feminists, will not be dissuaded.

"Even words meant to put us in our place will not deter us from our role," insists Kettenring's Dorothy after Henrikson's Louise balks at Katherine's final speech.

The liberation that began several hours earlier when the Columbia Women's Club doffed their skirts to rehearse their roles, concludes with them dressed as before, but united in sisterhood. And prepared to change the world.

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