Do all men love their women just a little beaten down?
It sounds shocking when bluntly stated. But whether it’s Kiss Me Kate or Ten Things I Hate About You, audiences keep coming back to William Shakespeare’s simultaneously brutal and charming The Taming of the Shrew. Houston Ballet proves dance is by no means immune to the appeal of this complex comedy and they prove themselves more than up to the challenge of John Cranko’s masterful The Taming of the Shrew in an impeccably executed production that runs through June 19.
The plot of Taming of the Shrew hides in plain sight, right in the title. Like an animal, a woman must be domesticated. The proud and combative Katherina must be married off because her father won’t allow her desirable younger sister Bianca to marry first. Three suitors, desperate for Bianca’s hand, hire the brutal, madcap, financially-strapped Petruchio to marry Katherina out of the way. Petruchio complies and even tames wild Katherina who not only learns to obey her husband but also learns to force other women to obey their husbands.
People wonder what to make of the violence in what is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed and beloved comedies. Many say it’s all in good fun between Petruchio and Katherina, but even a flawlessly performed, light-hearted interpretation of this truly funny play reveals too many trips, kicks, slaps, and arms twisted behind backs to ignore.
The test of any Taming is whether it honors Shakespeare’s complex mix of nightmare and dream. Cranko hits it out of the park with exhilarating movement that infuses balletic lyricism with the unruly and sometimes violent energies of the body. What begins and ends in elegant order passes through chaos as dancers twist, flip, jump, and kick with swinging hips and waggling butts. There’s wildness at the heart of structure, violence in the midst of beauty, which Cranko intuits from Shakespeare and Houston Ballet perfects in a stellar performance.
If you play Kate or Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, you have a serious legacy to live up to. This includes Cranko’s muses Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun who premiered the roles in 1969. But I’m really talking about the inimitable Richard Burton and the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor ("flights of angels sing thee to they rest"), who light up the screen in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 masterpiece.
Thursday night, Melody Mennite played Katherina to Connor Walsh’s Petruchio, and though flawless in their execution and often a joy to watch, some of the magic that makes us swallow the outlandishness of The Taming of the Shrew seemed missing.
Mennite stormed onto the stage of the Wortham Theater Center, keen to spoil her sister’s fun by literally throwing cold water on three over-heated suitors. Mennite leads with her hips as she kicks, turns, leaps, and terrifies the neighbors who assemble around her in their nightgowns. The choreography is whip-fast, and early on Mennite seems beyond being partnered.
This unbreakable Katherina dances the sleepy crowd into frenzy as they imitate her off-kilter movement and contagious aggression. After a lot of stomping and clapping, not to mention smacking of the three suitors, the lights fade on the crowd grouped stage center, with their fists raised in triumph and rage. But once Katherina begins to relate to Petruchio, fierceness descends into foot-stomping and wildly swung punches and slaps that eventually become tedious. I have no doubt the choreography includes such gestures, but they lack the complex theatricality we need to buy the relationship that evolves between Katherine and Petruchio. Both are violent but wounded creatures in need of love. Each learns to transform the other through compassion. This dynamic seemed fleeting at best.
Similarly, Walsh’s Petruchio left something to be desired. It’s nothing less than a dream to see Walsh leap into the air. His performances are full of skill, prowess, and a kind of grandeur perfect for the aristocratic roles in which he excels. These may not be the qualities of an ideal Petruchio, who must find a perfect balance of brash, brutal, funny, and sexy. He was each of these at times but never all at once, even when drunken, shirtless, and stripped of his boldly striped tights.
As Katherina might have feared, Bianca and her dashing beau, Lucentio, performed by Sara Webb and Ian Casady, steal the show. The two partner beautifully and make the most of the gorgeous oddities of Cranko’s style. Whenever they danced together, it was as if all other action stopped. In the middle of a masked ball, Cranko has the masked revelers sit on the stage and watch. It’s no wonder.
Webb and Casady had keen competition from the other suitors and brides. Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as the foppish Hortensio was magnificent in swirling blue clothes, and Oliver Halkowich as the über-fop Gremio. Halkowich’s improbable Gremio, charmingly tripped, flopped, and screeched like a bird. His performance was beautifully reminiscent of the wonderful Alain in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée in Houston Ballet triumphant production last year.
Kelly Myernick and Jessica Collado excel as bar girls of ill-repute who literally flirt and drink Petruchio under the table and make off with his pants and valuables. Later they trick Gremio and Hortensio into marrying them. These women shimmy, shake, and swing up their skirts as if they’ve figured out how to keep up with the Kardashians. No one on the stage intuited better the rhythms of Cranko’s quirky and frankly sexual choreography.
In another sense, it was the corps stole the show. If I could single out each member, I would: Bravo! Cranko ingeniously deploys groups of two, four, six, and more, to create a sense constant intensity. While at times the corps triumphantly seizes the stage, at others they execute fascinating and complex movement out of the spotlight. At times you wonder if the real ballet has been happening all along in the background. In Cranko’s world the stage is always full, even when it’s not.
Surely that has something to do with the rousing and well-deserved cheers at Thursday night's performance.