BWW Reviews: New Players Theater Brings THE TAMING OF THE SHREW to Mill Run
New Players Theater brought Shakespeare to life at the Mill Run Amphitheater with its summer series premiere of "The Taming of the Shrew" last night in a lovely outdoor space referred to as "the Island". Small and intimate, the area lends itself quite well to outdoor theater, though the production could benefit from natural lighting by beginning a bit earlier than its 8pm start time, especially considering it has a run time of around 2 ½ hours. "The Taming of the Shrew" is one of my favorite Shakespearian plays, and the comedy is one of the most family-friendly and easily understood of his works, making it a popular choice for outdoor production companies.
The storyline is Shakespeare at its finest- boy meets girl, boy woos girl, girl is actually an unbearable beast whom he attempts to "tame", and a variety of comedic subplots play through in undertones while said wooing occurs. I have seen this production performed over a dozen times live, and there have been so many musical, play, film, and even t.v takes (I'm clearly aging myself, but remember the "Moonlighting" version?) on this storyline. It's nearly impossible to do a "fresh" adaptation and frequently, the safest bet is to simply perform the play in its classic version and do it well. I was impressed by director Jocelyn Weibe's effort to give the show a new twist with a 1960's modernization of the set and costuming; however, while visually refreshing, I disappointingly found that when combined with the cast's character presentation style choices, it made the show feel unbearably sexist and domineering- a common complaint of the script. Compounding the thematic problem, Artistic Director, and seasoned actor Tim Browning takes on the role of Petruchio, the suitor of the infamous "shrew" with a serious and somber presentation, while Katherina "Kate" Minola is played without the "desperately wanting to be loved while maintaining her own independence" undertone necessary for the plot's resolution to work, by relative newcomer, Amanda Cawthorne. These roles have been convincingly played by actor's of all different age variations, but the age, skill, and technique differences between Cawthorne and Browning in this case, result in an ice cold lack of chemistry. The absent emotional connection leaves Cawthorne's Kate beautiful to look at, but horribly flat- spoiled and sullen, rather than quick-witted and spirited- and Browning's Petruchio as unyielding and hostile, rather than clever and truly in love with his wild bride. Further, this version stops at Petruchio's superficial control of Kate, appearing very oppressive, rather than his clever manipulation to truly "tame" her and earn her love through his carefully masterminded reverse psychology. It misses the mark by failing to allow the characters to move through the "verbal sparring, mutual admiration, and true love" arch so crucial to the audience feeling invested in either of their fates.
With the production following the"old-school" stereotyping of its lead characters, it would have been better served to maintain the traditional costuming and sets of its true time period and rely on its strength as a "classical" interpretation. In fact, the production's bright spots happened when its actors embraced the script's Commedia Dell'arte foundation. Todd Covert as Petruchio's servant, Grumio is a master at physical comedy, and a blast to watch. He delivers his lines with a wonderfully large stage presence that left my pint-sized first-time Shakespearian companion commenting, "I always understand what he means, even when I don't "get" all of the words he's saying because his face and body tell the story!" Another over-the-top and fun to watch role belongs to Christina Yoho as Lucentio's servant Biondello, who also brought a much needed energy to the stage. Erin Mellon is giddy, and lively as Kate's younger sister, Bianca, while Scott Willis is well cast as patriarch Baptista Minola, Kate and Bianca's father. Austin Andres as Lucentio and Clifton Holzagel as Tranio brought additional energy to their scenes as well. While these elements helped to remind the audience that "The Taming of the Shrew" is, in fact, a comedy, the unnecessary additions of Kate being carted off post-wedding in a ridiculously small little red wagon, and some bizarre sound effects that sounded like Saturday morning cartoons, were misplaced.
Set changes were painfully slow on its opening night, further dragging down the energy of the show, and in the outdoor forum, the production could easily run without the almost 20 minute intermission, as patrons are free to get up and move around as needed without disrupting the rest of the crowd during the show. The company's next production, "Henry IV-Part One" (which opens June 27) should result in a much more balanced performance in the hands of its veteran actors however. I kept wishing that this cast had chosen to perform a Shakespearian tragedy, like MacBeth, as the brooding, yet powerful Browning would be wonderful as Macbeth with the silently strong-willed Cawthorne as his Lady, since their overall tones arte better suited for the darker plays. I also love that New Players is attempting to utilize the available performance space in Mill Run to provide some much-needed live theater options for West-Siders who don't always want to make an entire evening out of travelling to downtown and back to see a show, and I have to commend them for that venture.
New Players Theaters' "The Taming of The Shrew" is accessible to families, affordable (pay what you will seat pricing), and a nice first-time Shakespeare experience. Bring the bug spray, pack a picnic, and give us your own review of New Players Theater's production. It runs June 20-23, July 6-7, 11-12, and 19-21 at 8pm, while "Henry IV- Part One" runs June 27-29, July 5, 13-14, 18, and 25-28 at 8pm. For additional info, go to: http://newplayers.org/
PHOTO CREDIT: New Players Theater