The concept, one imagines, inspired not a few raised eyebrows: Shakespeare plus tango. Intriguing, no? Or merely perplexing?
So was born the Lantern Theater Company's current production of The Taming of the Shrew, which runs through May 3. The romantic comedy, written between 1590 and 1592, is a sometimes heartwarming, sometimes caustic take on the battle of the sexes, set in the Italian city state of Padua, and here updated to the 1930s. As Shakespeare takes pains to show, the conflict is decisively weighted to one side.
The play concerns the efforts of a wealthy Paduan named Baptista (played by Nathan Foley) to marry off his only children, Katherine (Joanne Liao) and her younger sister, Bianca (K.O. DelMarcelle).
Kate has a reputation in Paduan society as an untamable, intemperate, uppity woman whose chances of netting a husband are as near nil as it gets, while sweet Bianca has more suitors than she can count. The conflict that drives the play is generated when Baptista insists Bianca cannot wed before her older sister.
Hostile to Dad and disgusted by the very idea of marriage, Kate is determined to remain independent. But her father decides to marry Kate off to Petruchio (J Hernandez), an opportunist newly arrived in the city who openly admits to his friends that he's far more attracted to her father's money than to her person.
As you can imagine, the romance in Taming of the Shrew is not exactly harmonious. And the strife between Kate and Petruchio actually escalates after they marry, when he takes it upon himself to tame his irascible bride using psychological ploys that would make a CIA interrogator proud. The latter half of the play has earned it a reputation as one of Shakespeare's most misogynistic works.
But the poet is as resourceful as ever in expressing the couple's conflict in some of his most bawdy, risqué language - which is where the tango comes in, says director Charles McMahon.
He sees the dance as a device to underscore Shakespeare's language, not to replace it. "The dance element isn't taking over the production," he says.
The dance sequences are carefully woven into text and action, and the resulting pas de deux make for a lively presentation.
McMahon said tango was a perfect way to show the mix of attraction and repulsion Kate feels about her eventual husband.
"At one point she says, 'I'd rather see him hanged than marry him.' Yet she does marry him," McMahon says. "Tango is such a great way of showing that wonderful mix of attraction and aggression. It really is a great way of telling what the [characters] are thinking in a physical way."
Besides playing Bianca, DelMarcelle did the choreography.
"The tango is such a smooth dance, and yet it also has such sharpness and tension," she says. "We took elements from Argentinian, American, and international tango to create our own physical vocabulary. We conceptualize the character of Petruchio and his servant Grumio [Dave Johnson] as outsiders who introduce the tango to Padua."
Hernandez says Petruchio's appearance in sedate Padua shakes up the town.
"His introduction of tango brings a surreal, dreamlike passion, a sultriness," he said. (Watching the play, one can't help but think of the effect on the American public of Elvis Presley's swiveling hips on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.)
Hernandez accents his comic performance with an added sprinkle of l'eau tango.
"We've tried to integrate tango into our physicality, the way we walk, even stand," he says. "I try to walk in a grid which mirrors the tango. You know, you go right, then suddenly you take a sharp left. Or you do a quick hard turn here and there."
Hernandez said his character is redeemed because he does really fall in love with Kate. "He does start out as an opportunist, but the moment he meets Katherine, all of that is thrown out the window."
Liao, on the other hand, is skeptical about the suggestion that Kate in turn grows to love her husband. She said Shakespeare presents Kate as a strong woman who is aware marriage comes down to an economic contract between men who see the woman as a piece of property or currency.
"I don't necessarily consider her a proto-feminist, but she is someone who thinks of herself as a person in her own right, an individual who has her own thoughts, needs and desires," Liao says.
Kate is incensed because the two men in her life both negate her right to be an independent person. "How can she find the place to be a person when the man to whom she's tied for life hasn't thought of her as much more than chattel?"
McMahon insists it's a mistake to leap to hasty conclusions about the play's sexual politics without considering that the entire thing is actually a story-within-a-story. The play opens with a prologue about a nobleman who mocks a low-born, loutish drunkard named Christopher Sly by pretending the boozer actually is a member of the gentry. McMahon insisted on including this opening, called the Induction, which he said is excised in almost all contemporary productions.
In it, the nobleman sets up an elaborate practical joke with Sly as its victim. He installs Sly at a fine house, gives him expensive garments, and invites a theatrical troupe to perform a romantic comedy for his entertainment.
"The play is about a character who is just like Sly, a blowhard, macho poser," McMahon says.
That means the play we take to be The Taming of the Shrew actually is a piece of ironic comedy that mocks the values it seems to espouse, said the director.
"It's a schizophrenic play which is set in this incredibly misogynistic world where men are judged by their ability to control their wives, yet where the women show open contempt for their husbands," McMahon says.
"I think it has something to do with the effect of Queen Elizabeth on the collective psyche. For centuries, there was male dominance in all things in England, and yet the country's most successful and powerful monarch turns out to be a woman - and one who chose never to marry."
The Taming of the Shrew
Presented by Lantern Theater Company, 923 Ludlow St., through May 3.
Information: 215-829-0395 or www.anterntheater.orgEndText