THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare, directed by David Ferry, with Liz Saunders, Paulino Nunes, Stewart Arnott, Paul Braunstein, David Collins, Marion Day, Ryan Field, Dylan Roberts and Chris Morris. Presented by ShakespeareWorks at the Home Depot Theatre, Ashbridges Bay Park (Coxwell and Lakeshore). Previews begin Sunday (June 26), opens Wednesday (June 29) and runs to August 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 2 pm (some exceptions). $20-25, youth (under 18) $2. 416-872-1111, www.shakespeareworks.com. Rating: NNNNN
Think you'll have problems with The Taming Of The Shrew even before you set foot in the theatre? People often see the piece as misogynist, with the spirited Kate - the shrew of the title - beaten down by her husband, Petruchio.
But don't write off this problematic play by the Bard before you see director David Ferry's production for ShakespeareWorks.
For one thing, he's set it in 1913 Italy, just before the first world war, at a time when the feminist movement was taking root in various countries.
"I think Kate is a strong-willed woman who would have taken to feminism," says Liz Saunders, who plays the part. "David's chosen a period when strong social conventions controlled everyone's actions, especially women's. It's no surprise that the suffragists were springing up in that era.
"And Kate's a woman who realizes that she's as smart as the guys around her. Why, she wonders, should she be under her father's rule, and why should he be auctioning her off as though she were chattel?"
Given his treatment of such characters as Cleopatra, Rosalind and Lady Macbeth, Saunders doesn't hold that Shakespeare would write a piece that's simplistic about the treatment of women.
"I can't believe he'd put forth the idea that women should be subservient and obey the men around them. That idea isn't true to the spirit of his writing."
Paulino Nunes, Petruchio to Saunders's Kate, agrees that there's more to the feisty woman than some productions allow.
"Petruchio realizes at their first meeting that Kate is more intelligent than most of the people he meets. She has retorts to his wit, and he's not used to anyone coming back at him, matching him idea for idea."
As the two actors talk, they joust verbally, mimicking the Kate/Petruchio interplay. If they play this well together in interviews, their onstage connection will definitely crackle.
That stage work is physical as well as verbal, though, and there has to be a chemistry between any two performers to make the production work. Luckily, both Nunes and Saunders develop a character organically; they admit to tossing curve balls to each other in rehearsals.
"But the physical stuff has to be more than roughhouse farce," adds Nunes, whose stage work includes Lobby Hero, Seizer and his own Fringe play, Rodeo Star.
"Both of them realize that if you fight well with someone, you can be great lovers, too."
"Those battle scenes have to create a kind of energy where we become one," continues Saunders, "so it's not two actors struggling against each other but, rather, having a connection that pulses with a constant push/pull."
Both characters, say Saunders and Nunes, have to discover how to relate to others, something they learn from each other over the course of the play.
"I think that at the beginning Kate is simply spewing defensively at everyone around her," says Saunders, who spent four seasons at Shaw and most recently performed in Confederation and Unless. "She develops into an active human being who thinks before she speaks and takes responsible control of her actions."
"And Petruchio," offers Nunes, "emotionally empty after the death of his father, is living in a vacuum, content to drink and wed a wealthy woman rather than develop some kind of inner life. There are times when he's as mixed up and shrewish as she is."
What about Kate's last speech about a wife's duties to her husband, which has caused so much controversy over the years?
"Oh, fuck," smiles Saunders, "I knew from the first time I read it aloud with the cast that some people would hate my take on it.
"But I think Kate's a character who's good with words, and that speech comes from a deep, inner understanding she has by the end of the play of being respectful of herself as well as those she loves and who love her.
"It's not a giving over; she's not been beaten down at all. These two will go on to have an enduring, loving relationship because their connection is based on the real thing."