Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, published by EDGE Philadelphia

In academic circles, the heated debates about Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew focus solely on the misogynistic plot, completely ignoring the humor of the play. In their current production of the same, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival takes the opposite tact-inserting humor at every possible opportunity, in a staging that occasionally comes at the expense of the play itself.

Shrew opens upon the young noble Lucentio (a smooth and mellow Zach Robidas) and his servant Tranio (Matt Pfeiffer) overhearing the laments of an awkward pair of suitors, Gremio (Wayne Turney) and Hortensio (Aaron Galligan-Stierle). Both fawn over the delicate and beautiful Bianca (Rachel Joffred), while railing against her father’s decision to withhold her hand until he can marry off his elder daughter Katherine (Grace Gonglewski). However, Kate’s foul tongue and temper make this a seemingly impossible task-her reputation and violent behavior scaring off all possible suitors in town.

Enter Petruchio (Greg Wood), an ambitious and equally abusive traveler seeking his fortune, willing to square off against Kate to secure her immense dowry. Petruchio plots to confound her every action with the opposite of her intent, and in the spirit of "perfect love," break down her stubborn contentiousness in order to make her into the perfectly submissive wife, even pausing to ask the audience if they can offer him a better way to tame a shrew.

Petruchio’s intent, and that he achieves it - Kate’s closing speech is an unmatched example of the victim’s compliance - is what enrages everyone, though to be fair, Shakespeare attempts to show in Bianca how an initial, yet manipulative docility, will lead later to a husband ruled by his mistress. Yet no one watching PSF’s production has the time to feel anger, let alone think about what’s being said, as they’re too busy laughing at the hilarious comedy crafted here by director Russell Treyz.

Drawing on every conceivable source - from Monty Python toSaturday morning cartoons - Treyz’s production capitalizes on every opportunity for humor. Wood’s initial entrance takes a self-referential poke at his age (in his mid-40’s, his character must nonetheless introduce himself as a "young man seeking his fortune"), and Gonglewski childishly torments with wet willies, Indian burns, and even titty-twisters. (I wonder if Treyz had Gonglewski do this to see just how many critics would write the word "titty-twister" into their reviews.)

But the bulk of the humor belongs to the superb ensemble, led here by Turney’s Gremio, and Chris Faith and Andy Wertner as the dimwitted servants Grumio and Biondello. If the servants can’t take Petruchio’s malice seriously, than neither can we, and the result is one long stretch of mirth and laughter, as even Wood and Gonglewski had to hide their amusement during Faith’s standout performance.

Unfortunately, the physical gags and comic inserts often hindered the dialogue, lessening the comprehension of Shakespeare’s lines, entertaining the audience while making them struggle to stay with the story. And with the cast assembled here, the dialogue and expressions deserved full attention.

From his first entrance, Wood strutted about the stage like a cat waiting to pounce-both relaxed and full of tension-and declaimed Shakespeare’s lines with the ease of a native Elizabethan. Likewise, both he and Gonglewski ignited the stage as the warring pair of lovers-she as the ferocious flame that threatened to consume the cast, and he as the explosive and pugnacious bully who set forth to extinguish her. Later, her Kate became a true delight, as the talented Gonglewski conveyed the whole of her character’s evolution from Shrew to submissive with just the lift of her eyes and the turn of her smile, melting both Petruchio and audience alike.

Besides making this one of the funniest and well-acted productions of Shrew I’ve witnessed (three so far just this year), Treyz attempts nothing new or different here. Or rather, he attempts an opening where the half-costumed cast mulls about the stage, some talking on cell phones, others listening to a radio, and where Alan Coates (brilliant and thoroughly underused in his minor part as Vincentio) interrupts this activity to welcome the audience to the "final dress rehearsal." An interesting approach, but unfortunately, Treyz does nothing else with it, neither integrating the notion of a dress rehearsal into the piece, or coming back around to this idea at the play’s end (Shakespeare already presents numerous opportunities to speak to the audience or break away from realism). All his device did was tack fifteen more minutes onto a play stuffed with the use of extras (as servants), added jokes, and Benny Hill inspired chases back and forth across the stage.

Beyond this attempt, Treyz presented an invigorating and funny, though fairly straightforward production of this play. However, given the truly magnificent cast, and the fact that most interpretations of Shakespeare range from mediocre to contemptuous, I’ll take the superb playing over bad innovations any day of the week, and highly recommend this production for the quality of the performances alone.

No comments: