WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. -- The contortions that we put poor Mr. Shakespeare through! It isn't enough that he was the greatest writer in the history of the English language; he has to be the most forward thinker as well. How could you write such a sexist play as "The Taming of the Shrew," Will, how could you?
Not that we are the first generation to blanch at the spirited Kate putting her hand beneath Petruchio's boot at the end of the story. Seventeenth-century playwright John Fletcher staged a rebuttal to the play, "The Tamer Tamed" in Shakespeare's time. Set 20 years later, after Kate's death, Petruchio's second wife, Maria, goes in the opposite direction from Kate -- from submission to equality.
Shakespeare didn't mind; he went on to collaborate on some of his last plays with Fletcher, who was his handpicked successor as head playwright of the acting company, the King's Men, according to Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World."
The two may even have played in repertory in 1633; almost 400 years later they were rejoined at the hip by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Northern Stage, an adventurous Equity theater in Vermont, has fused the two together even tighter, combining the plays into a 2 1/2-hour work called "The Shrew Tamer."
In doing so, artistic director Brooke Ciardelli has fashioned a play of significant historical interest. We tend to think that Shakespeare was more progressive than his contemporaries, but clearly Fletcher had far more egalitarian views concerning sexual politics.
But historical interest and artistic success are two different things. Fletcher needs a stacked deck in order to play on the same stage with Shakespeare. Fletcher at his most poetic is a much duller boy than Shakespeare at his most prosaic. But by speeding through "The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare's poetry -- and there is some marvelous love poetry -- as well as his knockabout farce go missing.
Ciardelli gives Shakespeare additional handicaps by keeping the scenery, the acting, and the choreography decidedly low-key during "The Taming of the Shrew" and then releasing it all in a flood of exuberance in "The Tamer Tamed."
Jefferson Slinkard's Petruchio is charismatically challenged throughout, until he has been conquered by Maren Perry's Maria. She and Vivia Font as Bianca are the stars of the production, which is competent in Shakespeare, but far more fruitful in Fletcher.
To what point, though? "The Shrew Tamer" feels a little like listening to a symphony orchestra speed through an edited version of Mahler before going all-out in Mantovani. A sexist, or anti-Semitic, Shakespeare is worth a thousand Fletchers, as Maria's dreary, Naderesque call for equality makes clear at the end of the evening.
We can get our feminism elsewhere. I'll take my Tamer, and my Shakespeare, untamed.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shrew Tamer
Adaptation by Brooke Ciardelli of The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare and The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher.
Directed by Ciardelli. Set, Jeff Modereger. Costumes, Rachel Kurland. Lights, Jason Rainone. Music, Paul Englishby. Produced by Northern Stage. At: Briggs Opera House, White River Junction, Vt., through Oct. 24. 802-296-7000.