BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW - Superb Interpretation!
The Denver Center Theatre Company presents William Shakespeare's controversial comedy THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, playing now through February 26th. The original Kiss Me Kate follows ladies' man Petruchio as he takes on the challenge of transforming the stubborn Katherine into an obedient bride, putting her through multiple tests involving physical and mental hoops that grow more and more absurd and hilarious as she digs her heels in. Director Kent Thompson has ingeniously set this classic battle of the sexes in 1950s America, a time when men were men and women were expected to be subservient decorations. This version of Willy's 16th century exploration of family expectations, courtship rituals, marriage as an institution, identity, love, and sex is a fun, physical, social exploration of what it means to be a woman – in 1590, 1950, and 2012.
The show opens with lovelorn Lucentio plotting with his servant to spend time with his lovely love, Bianca. Along with suitors Gremio and Hortensio, Lucentio concocts a scheme to marry off Bianca's older, less desirable sister Katherine so they can have courting access to the comely Bianca. You see, per Baptista Minola of Padua's rule (and daddy's mandate), no one is allowed to woo Bianca until her older sister Katherine is married. In comes Petruchio to tame the wild, nonconforming Kate (their first encounter is quite violent, an odd sort of tug-of-war) and they end up getting married in a peculiar and hilarious wedding ceremony. In Act II, we enter Petruchio's domain in Verona. This "home on the range" with his oddball staff almost seems like an episode of Hee Haw – the choreography for the dinner table scene just about brought down the house! From here we flip, we flop, we careen sideways and up and down as Petruchio deploys a series of torturous lessons that Kate must endure, which at times are disturbing to witness, but also enjoyable in a sick, sadistic way. Meanwhile, every heterosexual male within a 100 mile radius clamors to court Bianca, though her heart belongs to Lucentio. Thus commences the comedy of errors with not one, but two, Vincentios (Lucentio's wealthy father) tossed into the mix. In the end, identities are revealed and everyone is happily coupled. And who doesn't love a Shakespearean romp that boasts an all-out girl fight at the end? Really. Who?
The cast members bring their all to this devilishly delicious debacle. Kathleen McCall as the flame- flinging Katherine is clever and funny. She captivated the audience from the get-go, and held it all the way through her painful transformation from unruly maiden to "proper" wife. Her final monologue would make Willy proud. John G. Preston as her suitor and tamer Petruchio is a tall delight. While it was strange to hear Shakespeare with a southern twang, Preston immersed himself in his character, with great success – the audience loved his rakishly rogue ways – and Drew Cortese as Lucentio brings his scheming character to life with humor and hubris. But, really, it's the servants who get to have the most fun and keep the potentially confusing plot moving forward. Sir Willy was big on dynamic duos (best friends, romantic partners, dueling gangs) and the performances by Matt Zambrano (Tranio) and Patrick Halley (Biondello) feel like an homage to the great comic duos of Abbott and Costello, Lucy and Ricky, George and Gracie. I couldn't wait to see what this hilarious team would do next! Andrew Schwartz as Grumio, Petruchio's groom servant, travels above and beyond with his very physical interpretation of the role – another audience favorite. Christy McIntosh, in her Denver Center debut as Bianca, is sumptuously stunning and delectably ditzy – a real treat. As Hortensio, John-Michael Marrs's Shakespearean Elvis impersonation is side-splittingly superb and RAndy Moore as out-of-luck Gremio is simultaneously sweet and sad. Robert Sicular as Baptista Minola commands the stage as distraught daddy, and Mike Hartman and Philip Pleasants as the two Valentinos are an added delight. The veteran actors have an obvious camaraderie and familiarity; they seem to really enjoy playing off one another. Maurice Jones makes a mark in his small role as Petruchio's flamboyantly flaming tailor. The audience loved him! How wonderful, too, that almost the entire final class of The National Theatre Conservatory is able to participate in this riot of a show. Nice work, fellow players!
Denver Center artistic director Kent Thompson is to be complimented for his keen grasp of Shakespeare and the playwright's notoriously complicated verse. Thompson knows Shakespearean language so well that he is able to translate it into casual conversation and not some stuffy formal speak – even with this version of the play being set in mid-20th century America. The whole production flows easily, like verse from the Globe stage itself, with a little twang thrown in.
The set by designer David M. Barber is mod-chic, filled with vibrant pastel colors – very 1950s art deco and includes a single level modular home complete with rooftop deck (the equivalent of the requisite Shakespearean balcony). In Act I the home serves as the restaurant for the Baptistas. In Act II it is divided between the restaurant and Petruchio's country mancave, the equivalent of a backwoods bachelor pad. The billboards surrounding the stage with vintage advertisements are a brilliant touch, depicting the patriarchal "taming" of the 1950s housewife and detailing the subservient traits that make her "extra special" for her man. Costume designer Susan Branch Towne obviously had a blast with this updated retelling, showcasing colorful pastels, plaids, stripes, polka dots and even included a poodle skirt and Elvis costume to set the time period. I especially loved the loud and proud shoes that several cast members wore, and with so many cast members Ms. Towne did a fantastic job giving each character a unique flair. Tom Sturge's lighting design is wonderful as a whole, but especially notable as far as the nuanced lighting in the mancave and restaurant. Probably the most alluring aspect of the set is the backdrop – a map of America wherein each of the Italian towns and cities mentioned in the play would light up. A true stroke of interactive brilliance on Sturge's part! Musical composition by Gregg Coffin and sound design by Craig Breitenbach are filled with subtle touches that support each scene and even include the classic Italian "That's Amore" love song. One example of the music supporting the scene well is the inclusion of "Don't Fence Me In" at the beginning of Act II – an utterly appropriate choice that sets the context for what is to come as Petruchio and Katherine duke it out. Finally, it's no secret that this play is physically demanding on the actors and timing has to be just right not only to strategically evoke laughter from the audience, but also to keep the actors safe and unharmed during the ruckus. Fight director Gregory Hoffman and fight captain Andrew Schwartz, in tandem with movement stylist Robert Davidson, had their hands full (they probably needed 5 hands each) and did a fabulous job blocking out the scenes for maximum comedic impact, while creating a safe space for the actors onstage. Shakespearean-scope kudos are in order for that feat alone!
While this play has been the subject of many a feminist analytical and critical controversy over the centuries, taking into account The Bard's fancy for farce and satire helps place the play within a specific historical context. In the end, this production is another wonderfully funny spin on a Shakespeare classic. So don't wait till anon! Grab your marbles, hoola hoop, and roller skates and skip on over to see this lively production! THE TAMING OF THE SHREW will be time-warping minds at the Stage Theater of the Denver Center now through February 26th. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org. Fare thee well and eat your grits, fellow stage travelers!
PHOTO CREDIT: Vicki Kerr & Terry Shapiro
The cast and set of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
From This Author Michael Mulhern