The heartbreaking thing about the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew is just how close it comes to brilliance — and the banal reasons it falls short. This is a hard play to do well: As everyone knows, the pith of the story is the taming of a violent, bad-tempered woman by a violent, bad-tempered man. Gloss it how you will, add whatever psychological nuances you can provide, throw in all kinds of physical comedy, remind the audience that Shakespeare's vision is more humane than was common in his day...it still leaves a bad taste. There's a lot of haggling about money and suitors, and not a lot of poetry or deep insight — though a couple of the scenes between Katherine and Petruchio are magnificent. And you still get that damned Speech at the end — the one where Katherine admonishes her sister and the Widow for disobedience and says that a woman's duty is to be tender and subservient. I've seen the speech delivered with sarcasm or with enough winks and nods to convey that Katherine and Petruchio are colluding on a big joke; I've seen Petruchio sink to his knees in front of Katherine when she's done abasing herself. Nothing quite negates the ugliness.
Director Kent Thompson has set this Shrew in the 1950s, and added a few twists: Katherine's family is urban Italian; her courtly, old-world father owns a restaurant. Petruchio hails from the wilds of Texas. So there's a culture clash as well as a battle of the sexes. A large map to the rear shows the towns the characters inhabit, and their various peregrinations are tracked in light. Fifties-style ads line the walls exhorting us to "Drive a Dromio" or try "Viola's Kiss Make-up." The set — by David M. Barber — manages to combine cartoonish comedy with lyricism, gorgeous colors changing and melting with Tom Sturge's shifting light design. The costumes are pure fun, from Lucentio's saddle shoes to Bianca's pink poodle skirt. The music (Craig Breitenbach) is fine, too, a mix of familiar Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin numbers, and less familiar hits that remind us that the '50s weren't entirely the musical wasteland we remember.
All of the actors speak the dialogue with dazzling clarity, owning the language so completely that they're free to play with it. And here arises one of the problems. Some of the improvisations are funny, as when Petruchio tenses and mutters, "Yeah. There it is" every time an Italian male prepares to kiss him on the cheek. But what does it add when Petruchio says "Know what I mean?" after boasting that he doesn't woo "like a babe"? And interpolations like "I shoulda never left school in second grade," "Aw, nuts!" and Katherine's "Merde" just plain grate.
Denver Center Theatre Company
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 26, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Okay, this is the '50s and Elvis was an iconic presence then, but it's distracting when Hortensio dresses up as Elvis to impersonate a music teacher for Bianca. And the minor reservations I was feeling about all the hamming and improvising of the first act grew immensely in the second, when the acting morphed from cheerful hijinks to straight-out caricature. Why make Petruchio's servants such dolts? Why is Hortensio's widow a peevish, harsh-voiced stick? Yes, she's supposed to be the shrew that Katherine at heart isn't, but she should still be human.
The primary characters are well-played: Robert Sicular as a torn, dignified and regretful Baptista; Randy Moore bringing comic exactitude to the often throwaway role of Gremio, Bianca's elderly suitor; Drew Cortese as an attractive Lucentio. Christy McIntosh's Bianca is silly and affected, but not the kind of simpering puppet who plagues so many productions. Best of all are Kathleen McCall and John G. Preston as Katherine and Petruchio. He has the kind of masculine high spirits that make the scene where he beats Grumio feel more like horseplay than bullying. And McCall is far too strong and spirited for you to worry about Katherine's welfare at Petruchio's hands. Their interplay has nuance and subtlety, too: Just watch his bafflement at her sarcastic temper change over time to understanding and admiration.
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As for the Speech: McCall makes it magical. She has an unexpected interpretation of one section that I won't ruin by describing, but which you really should see. And though the words remain problematic, she transforms the whole into an encomium to love itself — a love as deep and well-considered as it is dearly earned.