In her first stage appearance since exchanging the boards for the sound stage as Julianna Margulies’ smart sidekick on the final season of The Good Wife, Cush Jumbo grumps, groans, grimaces, growls and glowers — man does she glower — under the sky in Phyllida Lloyd’s freewheeling feminist all-female revisal of The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. This startlingly good actress actress made her Broadway debut in the fall of 2014 as mysterious Hugh Jackman’s equally mysterious weekend date in The River. She quickly followed that up at Joe’s Pub with Josephine and I, a dazzling tour-de-force that interwove elements of her own story as a young woman and actress of color in London with the tale of her childhood idol Joesphine Baker.
And here she is as Katherina, fiercely distempered elder daughter of Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), scowling as she wheelbarrows cute-as-a-button kid sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) around the set, or sometimes riding a bicycle, looking as chipper as Miss Almira Gulch. Lloyd, as far away from the sunny Greek isles of
Mamma Mia! as anyone who went on to stage the prison-set, all-female versions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV (seen at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn), has transformed Shakespeare’s misogynist comedy into a tract with a laugh track. The show opens with the disembodied voice of a carny barker who might be Donald Trump announcing the “amazing” contestants in a beauty contest (enter Katherina pushing Bianca) just to make it clear that this Shrew will strip the play to its naked essentials as the tale of a woman who only needs to be humiliated, starved, bound and otherwise demeaned to accommodate to her proper place in the marital puzzle.
And who better for the task than this outsider Petruchio, who has come to wive it wealthily in Padua? Played with glorious greasy swagger by Janet McTeer — who has astounded us with her performance as Nora in A Doll’s House — Petruchio is a balls-grabbing, bottle-swigging cock o’ the walk who knows not only how to tame his Kate but also how to play all the idiot men around her as well.
Mark Thompson’s set suggests a traveling carnival that ran out of steam in a backwater some years ago and never left, and the circus-like atmosphere, though punctuated with music by Sam Davis, undercuts the humor with a sulphuric edge.
Lloyd is utterly unfazed by Shakespeare, cutting the text, interpolating torn-from-the-headlines asides and adding a coda that restates the obvious. Yes, much of it is rollickingly funny; none of it is remotely romantic. Which is the point, I suppose, but having seen on this stage Meryl Streep tangle with Raúl Juliá in a battle not to the death but to the bed, I have to say of this Public Theater production: I loved it. And I hated it. As for Shakespeare, he’s a big boy and like a disco queen, he will survive.