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Troupe’s Farcical ‘Shrew’

July 26, 2008

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Jul. 26–In a year that saw a woman get remarkably close to a presidential nomination and a realistic chance at reaching the White House, it may be harder than usual to swallow the notion, expressed in the closing moments of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, that the female sex shouldn’t “seek for rule, supremacy and sway, when they are bound to serve, love and obey.”

But there has long been a way to deal with viewpoints in this play that now give offense to our gender-respecting souls — rev up the farcical side. That’s the approach taken by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival in its dynamic and entertaining production being offered, to the accompaniment of contented cicadas, on the gentle meadow behind the Evergreen Museum and Library.

The staging, part of the company’s 15th anniversary season, comes down firmly on the side of those who argue that the introductory scene of Shrew, which sets up a play-within-a-play, effectively renders any anti-feminist ravings unserious. It’s all a gag, a bit of fun, you see, merely acted out by a traveling troupe for the benefit of some high-society folk and a drunken commoner named Sly who is fooled into believing he’s one of them.

To drive the point home, this production also includes a brief closing scene for Sly, taken from a text generally considered to have been written by someone other than Shakespeare. This it-was-all-a-dream kicker (a device that did the trick centuries later for the finale of the TV sitcom Newhart) sends Sly off with his head full of wild images, ready to “tame” his wife, should she dare to get uppity. He’s clearly as foolish as the characters who inhabited his “dream.”

The wisdom or authenticity of this approach to Shrew can be debated. And those who like to think of the infamously strong-willed, belligerent Kate and her foolhardy suitor Petruchio as genuine characters, rather than caricatures, may feel short-changed in the festival’s version. But it’s easy to go with the swift flow generated by a well-matched cast.

Director Joe Brady keeps that cast hopping, and he isn’t above borrowing an antic or two from The Three Stooges, complete with sound effects. His insertion of boxing-ring shtick during the most protracted of the verbal duels between Petruchio and Kate fits neatly into the farce angle, though it undercuts some of the richness of the dialogue.

Dawn Ursula has the requisite fire for the nastier side of Kate. She would probably reveal more nuance in the role under different circumstances, but still manages some winning moments, especially when, finally agreeing to Petruchio’s request for a kiss, she turns all schoolgirl-giggly. A tendency to take awkward, midsentence pauses may be refined for remaining performances.

James Kinstle’s Petruchio is vividly drawn, with a certain Errol Flynn streak, ready to swashbuckle at the drop of a prithee. (Memory slips on opening night took a small toll.) Christine Demuth makes an assured, animated, quite vixen-ish Bianca.

Peter Kendall’s Lucentio, who suggests a young Michael (Monty Python) Palin in both voice and movement, gives the production a considerable jolt of charm and panache. Bruce Nelson does a neat, foppish turn as Tranio, getting good mileage from the flip of a cap. Tim Marrone has an effective romp as Vincentio.

Among others making generally solid contributions are Michael Stebbins (Sly), Alex Zavistovich (Baptista), Colby Codding (Hortensio) and Cherie Weinert (Widow).

Everyone involved might want to remember that the sensitive sound system employed for the production means that they don’t have to shout so many lines in the old, play-to-the-balcony manner.

Robert Marietta’s set, a simple platform of varying heights, does the trick. Norah Worthington’s costumes are nicely evocative, sometimes with a dash of whimsy, but Petruchio’s deliberately insulting wedding outfit could use more visual surprise.

Well-chosen, eclectic musical selections are deftly integrated into the action, with Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” getting an especially apt workout.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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