You don't need a closet full of ball gags, whips, and nipple clips to know that there's an aspect of dominance and submission to most relationships. Historically, the male declares himself leader, with the female following obediently. But there is no more famous exception to that patriarchal rule than the spitfire Katherine in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which is now being given a rousing, slaphappy, but occasionally excessive rendering by the Great Lakes Theater Festival.
While many theater companies steer clear of this work because of the questionable morals elucidated by brought-to-heel Kate's concluding ode to male dominance ("I am ashamed that women are so simple/To offer war when they should kneel for peace"), Great Lakes giddily jumps into the gender-role melee with both clodhoppers. Director Drew Barr has attempted to blunt negative reactions to the play's message by emphasizing the artificiality of the play-within-a-play structure. Indeed, the first few words (not written by Will) are spoken by an unseen stage manager, who's dealing with a clumsy technician.
From that introductory moment on, reality and identities are up for grabs, as a drunken tinker becomes a lord, a servant morphs into a gentleman, a schoolmaster is transformed as a nobleman, and combative Katherine is reborn as Petruchio's languid Stepford wife in a pert housedress and high heels. Enhancing the artificial mood is the delightful set designed by Narelle Sissons, a tilted shadow box of rooms that frames much of the action and -- with its connecting doors, pass-throughs, disappearing wall, and ladders -- serves as a witty metaphor for the topsy-turvy unpredictability of relationships.
When the production works, which is almost always, the Great Lakes company makes Shakespeare's rich language as accessible as it can be, using myriad sight gags, Three Stooges slapstick, and a gaggle of physically compelling performances. As the battling duo in question, Andrew May and Laura Perrotta are perfectly mated. May is a one-man testosterone-keg party, spraying anyone or anything within reach as he marks his territory; Perrotta starts off as a growling cougar, barely constrained by Baptista, her rich father, and Bianca, her mousy younger sister. And when the two meet, sparks of laughter fly in all directions as the lout Petruchio gradually breaks Katherine's independent spirit. That's the point where most women and some men in the audience will involuntarily cringe, since Kate was a damn sight more interesting before her capitulation.
This audience-friendly production features sterling supporting performances, among them Wayne Turney as a foolish old coot, Scott Plate as Bianca's ardent suitor Lucentio, and Dudley Swetland as the frequently baffled Baptista. The only weakness is that, due to its eagerness to please, some of the stage business becomes a bit precious and extraneous, borrowing from every performance-style grab bag until one longs for a more consistent approach. Still, it would be a crime to miss this extremely un-tame Taming.