by Gail M. Burns, July, 2005.
Just when you thought we were well north of hurricane alley, Hurricane Kate makes landfall at the Founders’ Theatre in Lenox, where Daniela Varon and her energetic cast of 18 are presenting a relentlessly lively production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
To say that this production is a tour de force for all concerned is an understatement. It literally pounds you like a hurricane, with everyone speaking and moving at full force for three hours. Intermission functions like the calm eye of the storm, allowing the audience to unloose their grip on whatever has been anchoring them down and take a deep breath before the next onslaught.
I must say that at intermission I found myself quite exhilarated by the energy of this production, but by the end I was just plain exhausted. Everything I saw and heard was wonderful and beautiful. There was not a weak link in the tremendously talented cast. But it was too much of a muchness. I felt entertained to death. But overwhelming as it may be, there is no doubt that The Taming of the Shrew is one of the must-see highlights of the 2005 Berkshire theatre season.
I will dispense with the usual review of the plot because, unless you are under 12 or have been living in a monastery since you were, you know it all too well. As Varon says in her excellent Director’s Notes in the program, The Taming of the Shrew is a play that is solidly of its age, and she chooses to leave it there. Tales of husbands “taming” their wives were common, and men had every right to treat their women as they pleased, knowing which makes John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, playing on Shakespeare & Company’s Rose Footprint Theatre, seem downright feminist. An upper class single woman, such as Kate is and seems doomed to remain at the beginning of the play, had no rights. She couldn’t own or inherit property, nor could she earn a living. Spinsters were dependent all their lives on their fathers, brothers, and married sisters. Since Kate has only one sibling and Bianca cannot marry until after she does, their combined futures look dismal. Once their father Baptista is dead the estate will go to the next closest male relative and the sisters will be dependent on his kindness to survive. If he chooses not to provide for them they will have to take Holy Orders. Granted many women found the prospect of leading a quiet life in the convent preferable to a lifetime shackled to an abusive man and facing with regularity the dangers of childbirth.
Whether or not we today “approve” of this state of affairs, it was completely normal and accepted at the time the play was written and is set. A great deal more than just Bianca’s happiness and her suitors’ gratification depends on Kate’s getting married. But, as played with gale-force velocity by Celia Madeoy, Kate is no prize. She is a ball of fury who ricochets across the stage screaming at top volume. She is more than just bad tempered, she is down-right dangerous!
Bianca (Stephanie Dodd) on the other hand is a dim-witted blonde brat. Frankly, it has always been a thorn in the side of larger, louder, more opinionated woman (like myself) that men seem constantly smitten with these pale, scrawny, simpletons. It is therefore great fun to watch the knock-down drag-out fight between the two sisters early on in the play. As staged by Fight Master Kevin G. Coleman this is real mano-a-mano combat. If you miss those wicked cat fights Krystal and Alexis used to have on “Dynasty” watching Madeoy and Dodd go at it in close quarters ought to hold you for a while.
Very simply put, Madeoy’s Kate is wild and there is no one in Padua willing or able to attempt to tame her. Until Petruchio (Rocco Sisto) arrives. Where Madeoy is short and round and dark, Sisto is toweringly tall and slender and fair. They are a real Mutt and Jeff team. In order to kiss he has to stand in the aisle while she remains on the stage. Both actors are dramatically attractive people in completely unconventional ways, and both are powerhouse performers. I swear there really were sparks flying on the stage during their first wooing scene, which earned a spontaneous round of applause. Whether or not you approve of the proscribed dominance of the husband in Elizabethan times, Varon and her cast leave no doubt that there is tremendous love and attraction between these two people. They are meant for each other.
And then there’s all that silliness with Bianca’s suitors. As soon as it is clear that Baptista and Petruchio have contracted for his marriage to Kate, its open season for all those average, predictable men who just want a pretty blonde. Kenajuan Bentley portrays Hortensio, a pompous ass who is too easily wooed and won by Barbara Sims loud and lisping widow. Robert Biggs is the aging Gremio, who is obviously Bianca’s last choice. And Matthew Stucky plays the wild card, the handsome and wealthy Lucentio who steals away Bianca’s affections disguised as his own servant Tranio (Mark Saturno), who in turn impersonates his master and sues for Bianca’s hand on financial grounds with Baptista, played by Jonathan Croy who also has a hilarious incognito turn as a tailor later in the play.
Varon has retained Shakespeare’s framing device and presents “The Taming of the Shrew” as a play within a play. The show opens with a disgustingly drunk tinker Christopher Sly (Walton Wilson) passing out on the steps of the Lord’s house (David Josef Hansen, who plays Petruchio’s servant Grumio in the rest of the play). He is taken in by the servants – Aaron Adams, Rory Hammond, Ben Rosenblatt, and Kurt Uy, who all later play Petruchio’s servants at his home in Verona – dressed as the Lord of the Manor and put to bed with his “wife” Bartholomew (Lucas Maloney) in an elaborate gag. “The Taming of the Shrew” is then presented to Christopher Sly and his “wife” by a band of players as an entertainment fit for a Lord. Wilson and Maloney sit on a bed above the stage throughout the proceedings, until the company finds itself a player short and Christopher Sly is brought into the action as a pendant recruited to pretend to be Lucentio’s father Vincentio in order to hasten the arrangements for his marriage to Bianca. Of course the real Vincentio (Dave Demke) shows up, but not until Bianca and Lucentio have already been secretly married.
I don’t think that Varon’s frantically physical presentation would work if she hadn’t retained the play within a play format. You are never allowed to forget that these people are only actors presenting a play, and so their extravagant efforts to amuse and please are plausible. This is a world in which people literally stand on their heads just to pull up their socks. It ain’t real.
While Madeoy and Sisto are clearly the stars, everyone on the stage is excellent and Varon makes sure they each get a little moment to shine. It is clear that the cast had a hand in creating the hilarity and mayhem. Some of their contributions are a little corny and anachronistic, like Lucentio and Tranio’s chest-butting celebrations, but everything moves along at such break-neck speed that you hardly have time to be bothered by little bits that don’t work.
It is seldom that one refers to a Shakespearean offering as a “show.” It is a play or a comedy-tragedy-history-romance. But Varon and her team of performers and designers, each one a gifted artist, have put together a truly spectacular show. Varon has chosen to set this production of “Shrew” in its nominal setting of 16th century Padua, Italy. And she has decided that it is Carnivale time, the week before the beginning of the six-week Lenten fast when revelry is at its height. This allows Scenic Designer Edward Cheek, Costume Designer Laura Crow, and Lighting Designer Daniel Kotlowitz full rein to be as fanciful and colorful as they like. Frankly, I have never seen the Founders’ Theatre look better. Crow’s costumes are absolutely breathtaking and cleverly constructed to look Elizabethan while in fact being a sort of hybrid modern pastiche of the genre. There are several very funny costume gags, many of them involving codpieces, that I will not give away.
Nor will I give away the special surprise guest (played by Sonya Hamlin) who appears at the play’s end. Suffice it to say that her appearance and her speech, culled from historical sources, puts an interesting spin on the choices facing a single woman of any station in life in that time.
The Taming of the Shrew runs in repertory through September 3 at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs three hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Kids old enough to sit still for three hours will get a big kick out it! For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005