Director Robin McKee has made two risky choices for her production of The Taming of the Shrew. She has presented the play as pretty much an unadulterated love story, with Kate and Petruchio clearly gaga for each other from their very first encounter, despite all their subsequent yelling and jousting for power. And she has set the play in Miami in the 1950s. There are problems with both these concepts, but ultimately the production works. It doesn't hurt that both Sarah Fallon as Kate and Tony Molina as Petruchio turn in energetic and heartfelt performances.
Shrew tells the story of a bitter, angry woman given into wedlock by her father to a lusty, fortune-hunting man. Through a regime of taunting, dislocation, force, and sleep and food deprivation, this man tames her. The idea that wives should be meek and subservient to their husbands is a distasteful one in our time (except to some members of the religious right), but it would have been so obviously the norm as to need no discussion in Shakespeare's world. A woman branded a "scold" in Elizabethan England could be half drowned with a ducking stool, to the merriment of all observers, or imprisoned in "the branks" -- a kind of bridle that lacerated her tongue if she tried to speak -- and led around the village as an example to others. McKee's program notes describe the folk tales that provided Shakespeare with his story, and they are far more vicious than anything in Shrew.
There's a secondary sequence involving Kate's younger sister, Bianca, who is adored by several suitors but cannot marry until her older sister does. The plot is rounded out with a lot of identity confusion, haggling about dowries and servants being smacked around -- all elements that the Renaissance audience apparently found irresistibly funny.
Gentling the battle of the sexes in Shrew may be the most expedient choice these days, but in some ways it's also the best. It means we can appreciate the show's romance, wordplay and comedy in a way that we couldn't if we were tensed up every minute wondering if and when Petruchio might hit Kate. There's a kind of sweetness in the CSF version that's rare in productions of Shrew, and when the feuding pair finally confess their love, it's genuinely moving.
Sarah Fallon is a fine Katherina. She has a wonderful voice that gives the verse its due, softening or roaring as needed. She's also lithe in her black capri outfit, an expressive, capering, laughing, swearing, stomping little elf. It's a pleasure to see a Petruchio as plainly surprising as Tony Molina's. Molina confounds our expectations and reimagines familiar moments. Petruchio's big speech about his refusal to fear Kate's temper -- "Have I not in my time heard lions roar?" -- is usually an exhibition of uninhibited braggadocio. But in this production, the speech is deliberately undercut, both by the antics of James Beneduce as Petruchio's servant, Grumio, and by Molina himself. This is a humorous, chuckling, posing and playful Petruchio, whose primary motive is to teach Kate a lesson by mirroring her own bad temper. He's such a pussycat, in fact, that even the tailor he threatens with a beating remains singularly unafraid. When he and Kate enter his house after the wedding -- where he humiliated her -- followed by a cold, muddy horseback ride, she's sleeping in his arms like a baby.
It's true, a little of the sexiness goes out of the play when you remove its edge of danger and genuine rage. In addition, Molina's performance sometimes seems as patched together as his makeshift wedding outfit. Some bits of shtick are distracting or seem to arise from differing, unintegrated conceptions of the character, and the accent, too, seems oddly inconsistent.
There are a lot of weird accents in this production. Kate and Bianca's father, Baptista (Stuart O'Sheen), has a very shaky mock-Italian rhythm going. Hortensio (Alex Smith), one of Bianca's lovers, sports a Southern accent that seems authentic but tends to fade in and out. I winced when Alex Robertson, as Tranio, unleashed his Cuban pronunciations, complete with "ju" for "you," but he actually made his odd, raffish, Ricky Ricardo characterization work, and he produced the most vital and interesting Tranio I can remember seeing.
Bianca is sometimes played as a simpering, cartoon-like stick. I watched one actress in the role who was made up to look like a Raggedy Ann doll, complete with bunches of straw-yellow hair sticking out and round circles of rouge. Happily, Emily Hagburg plays Bianca pretty straight, as a flirtatious girl, silly and sometimes manipulative, but no more so than many teenagers. Shaun Flaherty, in the usually forgettable role of Lucentio, is one of the high points of the evening. He's long-limbed and elegant, with a pleasing voice, and he speaks Shakespeare well. His most appealing scene occurs after he's first fallen for Bianca, when he prances dopily about the stage to the strains of "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing."
As for the '50s-Miami milieu, I think it works -- more or less. There are problems in the first scene, a framing device in which a passing lord and his huntsmen find a drunken, unconscious beggar, Christopher Sly. They dress him in fine clothes, give him food and drink, provide the companionship of a pretty young woman and stage a play for his entertainment: The Taming of the Shrew. In this production, the huntsmen have become a bowling team, and the dialogue is replete with such solipsisms as "Take These Fellows to the Snack and Shack." Much of this is funny. But what are we to make of the original lines that remain, replete with words like "raiment" and "sirrah" and references to "hounds and horse"? (It should be said at this point, however, that Kevin Landis does wonders with the tiny role of the lord.)
On the positive side, the setting emphasizes the playful aspects of the text. And it provides funny little surprises -- like the actors' moving silhouettes on a large movie screen -- to help us through the tedious parts. The costumes, by Don Mangone, are lots of fun. Sarah Fallon's capris add a whole new dimension to our concept of Kate -- though the costume she wears after her transformation, while witty and visually appealing, is not particularly flattering. Mangone does beautifully by Lucentio and Bianca. What a charming couple they make, strolling hand in hand across the stage, he in his ice-cream suit, she in a wide skirt and gracefully curving hat. The music, too, is cleverly chosen. It must have been tempting to throw a zillion '50s hits into the pot, but sound designer Kevin Dunayer has stayed with a few well-chosen pieces. The setting doesn't add much to our overall understanding of the play, but it does have some relevance. In '50s America, women were indeed expected to be subordinate to men, though social pressure and media images, rather than ducking stools, were the means of enforcement.
There are amateurish moments in this production and elements that seem insufficiently thought through, but overall, it is a gentle-hearted, original and entertaining version of the play.
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