The theater of Charles Marowitz has never been far from sensationalistic. It is also why it is rarely dull. Most of the time the element of exploitation in his work is disguised in stageworthy theatrical trappings. With “The Shrew,” now at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, the disguise is thinner and the Marowitz stripes break through.
In case you haven’t heard the modern argument about Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” here it is: Should the shrewish Kate have knuckled under to the rough treatment she got from her groom Petruchio--a man in pursuit only of her fortune--or is that (a) an abdication of her womanly fighting spirit, free will and civil rights, and (b) the tacit acknowledgement that violence against women is fine and that Petruchio’s extreme display of piggish male chauvinism is the way women should be treated?
The case against this line of reasoning, of course, is the one Marowitz makes with his version of “The Shrew,” but it takes him rather a long time and several bends in the road to make it. True to form, he takes a play that has always been the subject of a good deal of controversy and stirs up something at least twice as juicy. Shakespeare’s writing being so rich, malleable and clever (and his person being so safely dead), it can be rearranged to suit any ideological fashion of the day. You could do at least as much for racial discrimination in “Othello” or religious bigotry in “Merchant of Venice.”
In “The Shrew,” Marowitz sticks to the letter of some of Shakespeare’s words, but not to their contextual meaning, and proceeds to show us what a reprehensible travesty of love was the Kate/Petruchio war. To assist the argument--in case you don’t get it--he creates a modern equivalent (taking Bianca and Hortensio and turn ing them into Bea and Lou, a very modern couple of lovers grappling with the issue of equality in their own private battles).
The “Shrew” scenes are shrewdly edited Shakespeare, overlaid (pardon the pun) with extremely nasty and dark new inflections. The modern scenes are pure Marowitz, serviceable and clever:
Tough, bright young woman meets persistent, insecure young man and diddles him around; tough, bright young woman gives in; insecure young man diddles once-tough young woman around; the roles reverse; when the relationship has turned ugly, they marry.
Eventually, the old and new scenes make their combined point, but it takes most of the show to do it. By then it’s too little too late. The case has been heavily--and heavy-handedly--overstated.
Two issues appear to be involved here: Is this an interpretation or simply a perversion of the Shakespeare play? And does it matter?
The answer to the second part is that it will matter to purists or to those who merely like their Shakespeare as he wrote it, which gives us the answer to the first part. The Marowitz “Shrew” is at least a real distortion of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare wrote a lusty, muscular comedy about a bright young fellow whose intentions are indeed to wed wealthily in Padua, but to do it honorably and to have a ripsnorting good time in his marriage. It was, as he saw it, a matter of getting his spoiled young bride to understand that she couldn’t go around browbeating not only him but the world. Gender aside, Petruchio did his Kate a favor, and Shakespeare’s closing scene of mock-subservience on Kate’s part is merely a happy device--a joke on the company for a merry ending.
The acting at the Ensemble is solid but, due to the selective editing, sometimes awkward thanks to stark transitions in the pilfered Shakespeare. This makes it harder for Jenny Agutter as the dispirited Kate and Mark Lindsay Chapman as a truly evil Petruchio to give more than one-dimensional performances, though both are clearly superior performers.
The same applies to Frank Collison’s Grumio, Dudley Knight as the weak Baptista and Paul Deigert as a servant in Petruchio’s household. (That this Petruchio has a household at all, after letting on early that he had nothing, is one of many glaring loopholes in the play.)
The modern scenes fare better. Jane Windsor as Bea/Bianca and Chris McDonald as Lou/Hortensio have meaty dialogue and major, well-engineered transitions that they handle well. Kent Dorsey has supplied a spare, attractive set (proving money isn’t everything). Sylvia Moss’ costumes and Eileen Cooley’s lighting are adequate.
In the end, how well you like the Marowitz “Shrew” will depend on how willing you are to go along with it. But it is right in tune with the season--a Halloween “Shrew,” whose graphic violence and lurid masks are a bit of a con.
Performances at 1089 N. Oxford Ave. run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays 3 and 7 p.m., until Nov. 30 (213) 466-2916.