The Taming of the Shrew is not a play that’s easily tamed to the ballet stage. Although it’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts and comes down to us in an uncertain text (he appears to have changed his mind about Hortensio’s role), there’s fireworks in the language (the verbal sparring between Petruchio and Katharine confirms them as soul mates, just as it will Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) and acuity in the characterizations (Bianca’s "innocent" undermining of her sister helps explain Kate’s "shrewish" behavior). Some of this subtle and sophisticated social commentary eluded choreographer John Cranko when he adapted The Taming of the Shrew; his 1969 ballet is more generic and less original than the one he’d made from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin a few years earlier. But in 1995, when it first staged Shrew, Boston Ballet saw past the piece’s Bianca-like "sweet beauty" to the Kate-like "lusty wench" at its heart, and the company does so again in the production that’s at the Wang Theatre through this weekend.
Cranko made the sensible decision to simplify Shakespeare’s subplot, in which Hortensio poses as Litio and Lucentio as Cambio and Tranio as Lucentio and an old merchant as Lucentio’s father. Here, Hortensio and Lucentio and Gremio are all suitors to Bianca, but her father, Baptista, doesn’t want to hear from them (particularly their nocturnal serenading) till some man takes Bianca’s cranky elder sister off his hands. Thumped by Kate, the trio repair to a nearby tavern, where, in a scene doubtless suggested by the play’s Christopher Sly Induction, they watch a plastered Petruchio get fleeced by two whores. In dire need of cash, Petruchio agrees to woo Kate; they, accompanying him, disguise themselves as tutors to gain access to Bianca. (This subterfuge doesn’t make a lot of sense, since Petruchio’s suit has now given them license to court Bianca, but that’s the play’s muddle as well.) In a sequence that echoes the display of Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo, Gremio as singing master, Hortensio as music master, and Lucentio as dancing master show their wares; like Apollo, Bianca chooses the dance. Then in a Carnival scene where she and the two whores all wear the same red domino, Gremio and Hortensio are duped into marrying the whores, each believing his bride is Bianca, and that gives Bianca and Lucentio the opportunity to elope. Petruchio and Kate, meanwhile, are wedded but not bedded, their story proceeding as per Shakespeare, though the dressmaking scene that’s in the play and the program does not take place on stage.
More problematic than missing scenes is Cranko’s watered-down Petruchio. For all that he’s "come to wive it wealthily in Padua," Shakespeare’s protagonist is already flush; what he wants is a wife to match his own intelligence and spirit, and that’s what he gets. Losing his ducats and his duds like a rube, Cranko’s Petruchio woos wealth out of necessity, and after kneeling before Bianca, he does a double take of dismay when she’s replaced with Kate, then shrugs and continues. Cranko’s Lucentio and Bianca pose another difficulty: in their gulling of Hortensio and Gremio and especially in their two pas de deux, they’re like romantic leads; you’d never think that Bianca is a spoiled daddy’s girl or that Lucentio’s love, like Hortensio’s and Gremio’s, is only skin deep. They have the most beautiful music in the ballet as well; saturated with flute and oboe, it conjures an Irish Vaughan Williams. But the rest of the score, which Cranko associate Kurt-Heinz Stolze fashioned from compositions by Domenico Scarlatti, is an erratic patchwork that doesn’t equal the Tchaikovsky collage Stolze created for Onegin. The outer parts of the overture sound like Bonanza outtakes, and much of what follows would be more appropriate for a Broadway chorus than a ballet corps. It’s not even clear whether Stolze is aiming at Prokofiev or Stravinsky; the echoes range from Tchaikovsky to Copland (a hint of El Salón México in the food fight that Petruchio initiates). And as heart-wrenching as the second pas de deux for Bianca and Lucentio is, it doesn’t resolve, instead merely swirling and sinking to the ground like the lovers. The Boston Ballet Orchestra under music director Jonathan McPhee does a creditable job with this complicated and not always rewarding material; the notables include Freda Locker on piano and harpsichord, Kathleen O’Donnell on flute, Barbara La Fitte on oboe, Robert Couture doing the sleazy tavern trombone slides, and Jeffrey Fischer playing the slide whistle that represents Gremio’s attempts at singing.
Susan Benson’s sets are another patchwork, generic Renaissance (compare Alain Vaës’s work for Romeo and Juliet) coupled with a pastel red-rose motif and a landscape (for the journeys Petruchio and Kate make on horseback) that suggests "the rain it raineth every day." The pastel peasant costumes and particularly the ladies’ mob caps are a further puzzle; if you just wandered into the Wang, you might think Boston Ballet was doing Oliver! And though there’s wit in the allusions to Balanchine, the choreography more often just looks derivative, the three suitors cavorting at Baptista’s door like Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and the two whores carrying on like the stepsisters in his Cinderella. The dances for the corps include lots of peasanty skipping and jumping and head bobbing; it doesn’t make sense for the city that Shakespeare calls "nursery of arts," though Cranko’s daisy chains and other patterns show a command of space. The duets are all about lifts; there’s some jumping and flashy footwork for Petruchio and Lucentio but very little for Kate and Bianca beyond acting and flying.
Acting is what drives this Shrew, and the particulars that the company’s dancers supply are what drive this production. Larissa Ponomarenko’s Kate is a wounded, angry creature who high-fives Hortensio (karate kick to the chops) and low-fives Lucentio (stomping on toes) with equal alacrity and has real venom in her cat-claw jumps, not to mention the way she brandishes her long-stemmed bridal-"bouquet" lily. She wants more from a husband than the infatuation Bianca provokes, and settles for, and so she holds out till well into the second act, both her face and her body a cascade of shifting emotions. Perhaps it was just the shredded bridal skirt suggesting Balanchine’s Tzigane, but on opening night, Ponomarenko reminded me of Suzanne Farrell in her vulnerability and her dramatic timing. Carlos Molina as her Petruchio was high-flying and swashbuckling, loose and easy in the way he flung himself around and inebriatedly fell out of his jumps, equally masterful but not as intense or nuanced, with a touch of Howard Keel’s Fred Graham in the 1953 MGM film version of Kiss Me Kate. Friday night, Reyneris Reyes was more of a regular-guy Petruchio, the character benefitting from his decision not to shrug when Kate is substituted for Bianca. Pollyana Ribeiro was the independent cat to Ponomarenko’s abused but hopeful dog, disdainful not just of these suitors but of men in general, and even funnier than Ponomarenko in her flat-footed walk. Where Ponomarenko is nuanced, Ribeiro is mercurial; she’d be smiling at Reyes one moment and belting him the next. Saturday afternoon, Adriana Suárez went on for Ponomarenko (injured ankle) and came out terrorizing Padua as if she were Damien in The Omen, but her Kate, like Ribeiro’s, is a little girl as well as a woman, and Molina’s boyishness soon touched her heart. Both Molina with Ponomarenko and Reyes with Ribeiro had problems with the treacherous lifts of the closing pas de deux. Saturday evening, Yury Yanowsky and Lorna Feijóo made them look easy, and Yanowsky’s Petruchio, hard-nosed with hints of self-parody (the look of disbelief on his face every time Feijóo stomped on him), recalled Patrick Armand’s 1995 performances. He might have been a better partner for Ponomarenko. And perhaps Molina’s swagger would have brought out more dimensions from Feijóo. She expresses herself most fully through her dancing; her Kate always seemed to be waiting for Cranko to get serious.
Romi Beppu’s Bianca was delectably articulated, especially in her port de bras; she gave the character a lot of detail, shimmying her shoulders at Molina and Reyes and throwing in a couple of bad-girl swats at Ribeiro. Jared Nelson as her Lucentio was all-American callow, sterling in his Carnival solo and attentive to Beppu in their pas de deux not just with his face but with his body. Saturday afternoon, Karine Seneca was Bianca as homecoming queen, beautiful, entitled, pouty when crossed, not as lissome as Beppu or as detailed but logical and more consistent with Shakespeare’s conception. As her Lucentio, Sabi Varga was more self-aware in his acting (the quick glance at the audience between his two big Apollo-alluding lute strums, the raised eyebrows at the comic entrechats of Gianni Di Marco’s Gremio) and more European elegant in his bearing, but his Carnival solo was more self-conscious than Nelson’s and didn’t have the same speed. Saturday night, Pavel Gurevich and Sacha Wakelin didn’t quite connect. Their second pas de deux had its own partnering problems, and though he started out with big, assured jumps, he seemed to lose steam, or concentration, in his solo. Her good-hearted Bianca was a little prissy and self-righteous and had the least detail.
Mindaugas Bauzys is a show all by himself. Tall and noble of bearing, his Hortensio looks like the star, and he gets Bianca’s attention, but it’s soon obvious that he’s more interested in playing with his, uh, instrument than in dancing with her, and Bauzys puts the cock back into cock rock. Clapping to command his wife at the closing obedience trials, he bruises those delicate artist’s hands seemingly beyond repair, but by the curtain call, he’s using them to spur the audience into even louder applause, blissfully unaware that it’s not all for him. Friday, Jared Redick seemed more inhibited and less interesting, but he caught fire toward the end, first extending the wrong arm to his red-haired-whore bride and then, during the curtain call, throwing us a "What am I, chopped liver" Woody Allen look as his wife took her bow. (Bauzys, on the other hand, stepped in front of his wife at the end, having apparently forgotten that he had one.) Worth another look. Of the Gremios, only Gianni Di Marco gave us Shakespeare’s aged pantaloon, Charlie Chaplin with an arthritic gait. Saturday afternoon, after watching Bauzys’s Mick Jagger theatrics, Di Marco took Gremio’s trademark handkerchief and started passing it around and between his thighs, having finally figured out what drives the girls wild.
Most exuberant and sympathetic of the whores was Melanie Atkins as the red-haired one on Friday; you could practically see her wriggling beneath her domino as she extended her arm for Redick’s Hortensio to kiss, Doris Day–radiant at the prospect of becoming an honest woman. As for the corps, one moment can stand for its contribution: Kate walking through the arcade of bridesmaids and snapping at the last one (Misa Kuranaga in the four performances I saw), who then looks around at the other five silently wailing, "Did you see that? What did I do?" That’s the kind of subtext that makes The Taming of the Shrew a great play. It’s the kind of detail that makes this a wonderful production.
The Taming of the Shrew
Choreography by John Cranko. Music by Karl-Heinz Stolze, after Domenico Scarlatti. Sets and costumes by Susan Benson. Lighting by Pierre Lavoie. Staging by Jane Bourne. Presented by Boston Ballet at the Wang Theatre through November 7.
Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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