Video Vault: The Taming of the Shrew

The best (and worst) classic flicks and cult favorites

“The Taming of the Shrew”
WNET, 1976

Starring: Marc Singer, Fredi Olster, and Stephen St. Paul
Directed by: William Ball and Kirk Browning

The plot: It’s the Renaissance. Kate and Bianca are two unmarried daughters of a wealthy Italian merchant. Older sister Kate (Olster) matches her gentle and lovable sister Bianca in beauty, but in temperament, leaves much to be desired — she is strong-willed and razor-tongued. Though Bianca has many suitors, her father will not allow her to marry until Kate has a husband of her own. No one desires to marry the foul-tempered Kate — that is, until the dashing, confident, and wily Petruchio (Singer) arrives in Padua and tries his hand at courting her.

Why it’s good: I hesitate to shower praise on this study in perfection, but here goes. Every single aspect of stagecraft, intellectual dramaturgy, and inspired performance viability in this 40-year-old stage production by the American Conservatory Theatre of San Francisco is arguably perfect. It has to be seen to be believed, and by a prescient “live performance” recording miracle (courtesy of Kultur Video’s fantastic Broadway Theatre Archive series), anyone can. It looks as though it were taped last night. The approach was a Commedia dell’Arte production in costume and knockabout staging. Singer (the hunk hero of “The Beastmaster” series) plays Petruchio as Don Juan by way of an athletic Dudley Do-Right. Olster’s Kate is a voluptuous, strong-willed, and dangerous woman. There is not the space here to individually celebrate the amazing performances of the actors playing Bianca, Baptista, Gremio, Grumio, Lucentio, Hortensio, Tranio, Biondello, Vincentio, etcetera, as well as the ensemble chorus, but they are individually and collectively astounding. Directors Ball and Browning blocked movements utilizing every inch of the ACT stage and choreographed fights, dances, somersaults, and stunts that are breathtaking in their design and execution. They left no erotic, bawdy, or lowbrow stone unturned. This production is a joyous celebration of Shakespeare, the art and craft of acting, and theater itself.

The legacy: Shakespeare’s plays have been transferred to the big screen since the earliest silent films and there have been more than a few masterpieces along the way: adaptations by Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Zeffirelli, Polanski, and Branagh spring to mind. BBC-TV adapted all 37 plays over seven seasons from 1978 to 1985 with varying results (John Cleese’s Petruchio was a misfire). Rarely is a work of art in the medium of theater, film, or television flawless. Here’s an exception. The Kultur DVD has a fine interview with director William Ball and previews of the wonderful plays in their Broadway Theatre Archive series.