Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park Begins Season with Hilarious TAMING OF THE SHREW
The works of William Shakespeare can be some of the most challenging plays for any company to produce. One of the potential hurdles is whether or not to change or alter the play to make it "more accessible" to modern audiences. Some will argue that no such changes need to ever happen because the plays are as accessible and relatable today as they have always been. Others say modern audiences need help to grasp the play's language and its meaning. Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park is taking on these challenges in their rollicking and entertaining production of Taming of the Shrew, now playing on the stage at the Myriad Botanical Gardens.
For those not well-versed in this popular Shakespearean comedy, the plot revolves around two connected love stories (the Bard's comedies seem to almost always revolve around connected love stories). In this case, we find ourselves in the city of Padua, where Baptista is the father of two daughters, the "virtuous" Bianca and the "shrewish" Kate. Bianca has many suitors, including local lords Gremio and Hortensio, and Lucentio, a young student who arrived in town and was instantly smitten with Biancia. But, before any of them can wed the fair maiden, Kate must be married off as well. Unfortunately, this poses quite a problem, since Kate is viewed as the most obnoxious, vile and unappealing woman possible, not likely to attract or win over any suitors. Enter our hero, Petruchio, who arrives in Padua looking to find a wife and, along with her, a very large dowry. Hortensio convinces Petruchio that he should attempt to woo and marry Kate, a challenge Petruchio gladly accepts.
Shakespeare's play begins with a poor tinker who, after falling asleep drunk, has a prank pulled on him by a local lord. When he awakens, he is convinced by a group of the lord's men that he is actually a lord himself. He comes to believe this upon meeting his "wife," one of the men dressed up as a woman. The men then tell him that a group of players are going to present a play for him, which ends up being the play Taming of the Shrew. This framing device is fully embraced and then some by director Caprice Woosley. We actually meet the players first, who come onstage to tell us that the real, actual cast of Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park's performance has come down with food poisoning and won't be able to go on. Instead, we will be treated to a performance by the Poor Pitiful Players. As they begin the performance, the drunk enters and interrupts them, leading them to pull the aforementioned prank on him.
This convention is interesting in that it lets the company get away with pretty much anything. When there are moments that don't work, is it because of plain old bad acting or poor choices? Or is it an intentional choice in the context of the Poor Pitiful Players, something that they would just do, because they are poor and pitiful? If you spend too much time overthinking these questions, you will likely drive yourself crazy and miss out on all the actual fun going on during the play. Better to not overthink it and just sit back and enjoy the craziness and strangeness that is most likely fully intentional. Besides, artists this experienced and professional know what they're doing and most of what happens is likely carefully chosen, choreographed and executed, with a good reason.
Another thing Woosely has chosen here is to focus on the humor and fun in the work, including much of the bawdy, ribald humor. She and her cast do not shy away from the sexual innuendos and jokes that may make an audience member blush. Almost one hundred percent of these moments work, though, and there are many laugh-out-loud hilarious sight gags and comic bits. Do some of them come at the expense of the language and the dialogue? Yes, they occasionally do, there are moments when what is being said is completely lost due to the really funny thing happening elsewhere on stage. It's another aspect of this production to just embrace and enjoy, rather than think too much about it.
Of course, enjoyment of the play also rests largely on the actors, and in this case, it very much rests on the shoulders of the actors playing Petruchio and Kate. As Petruchio, Sean Eckart is a veritable supernova of energy. From the first moment he appears, he grabs the audience's attention and never lets go until the final curtain. His broad, presentational way of playing many of the moments always leads to hilarious results, but he can handle the smaller, subtler moments with just as much skill. Jodi Nestander is his absolute equal as Kate. She gets to play a character who has more of a journey and it is a wonderful and entertaining thing to watch. Nestander is excellent at every point and creates a Kate who is likable and has the audience rooting for her, whether she's a shrew or a doting wife. Together, the two of them have great, electric chemistry and work wonderfully together.
As the long-suffering father, Baptista, Michael Gibbons is also wonderful and a lot of fun to watch. His expressions of exasperation and confusion, sometimes at the same time, are very comical and believable. As two of the suitors Baptista must deal with, Mark Johnson as Gremio and Dakota Lee Bryant as Hortension are both fantastic. Johnson gives Gremio a great "crazy uncle" quality, as if Gremio maybe drank an entire bottle of wine just a moment ago. Bryant is very funny but also very sympathetic and relatable as the younger and more flamboyant Hortensio, a fan-favorite character among audience members. Another favorite among the audience is Weston Vrooman as Tranio, giving another hysterical performance as Lucentio's servant who switches roles with his master so the master can woo Bianca in secret. Vrooman has perfect comic timing and delivery and some of the play's best moments.
Less successful among the leads are Suzy Weller as Bianca and Bryan Lewis as Lucentio. No way to tell if these were just bad individual choices or not, but their performances were both off, especially in comparison to the rest of the cast. Weller's Bianca is mostly just annoying and not likeable at all, a kind of Bianca-by-way-of-Mean Girls. Even when Kate is a Shrew, she is still more likeable than Bianca is at any point. For his part, Lewis performs the role as if he is either stoned, sleepwalking or both. His performance lacks any passion and his love for Bianca is not believable at all. While the young pair make an attractive couple, they have no chemistry to speak of.
An ensemble of performers fills out the cast, including a few standouts. Michele L. Fields is the clear MVP, she is never not hilarious, stealing a few scenes and often making a scene better with her presence. She also manages to create two completely different characters, using only a costume change and her acting talent. Sage Tokach is also very effective at pulling of whatever is asked of her and is one of the best ensemble members at adding to a scene rather than distracting from it. Joe Bonfiglio is game for anything and always very funny no matter what he's doing. And David Fletcher-Hall provides some of the show's biggest laughs when he takes the role of Petruchio's servant, Grumio.
In terms of the language and dialogue of Shakespeare, most of the cast, especially the leads, handle it perfectly. Their understanding of the language and ability to express the meaning and emotions behind the words goes a long way towards making this production a successful one. Combining that with all of the undeniable humor and plenty of charisma, energy and talent from the cast, it all adds up to a show every audience member will enjoy, regardless of their appreciation for or understanding of Shakespeare's works. It is an excellent beginning to Shakespeare in the Park's exciting season.
Taming of the Shrew runs through June 24th, on the Water Stage at the Myriad Botanical Gardens in downtown Oklahoma City, with performances at 8:00pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $20, or $15 for students, seniors and military personnel. They may be purchased at any time online by visiting the company's websiate at www.oklahomashakespeare.com or by visiting the box office at the Water Stage on the evening of the show, from 7pm until show time,
Pictured: Sean Eckart. Photo by April Porterfield.