BWW Reviews: Shakespeare Goes Mod in Portland Shakespeare Project's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

By: Jul. 15, 2013
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You all know The Taming of the Shrew, right? That misogynistic old thing where the woman gets brutalized into obeying the man she didn't want to marry? It just amazes us that such things can still be put on stage in our modern, enlightened age. I should have boycotted the show on behalf of all the women in the world.

Ahem. We all think we know the play. We've seen Kiss Me, Kate or some other adaptation. My favorite is the Moonlighting episode titled "Atomic Shakespeare," where a young TV fan imagines Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd making a mockery of the original and exposing its sexism. The actual play, however, is about a lot more than that. You can still make the argument that Shakespeare wasn't a feminist. But you'll have quite a bit more to think about once you've seen this production.

The show begins in the lobby, with a drunk wandering through playing odd tunes on a euphonium and accosting the waiting theatergoers. The drunk finds his way into the auditorium, where he is scolded by a woman who appears to be a theater volunteer. She reminds us to turn off our cell phones, then gathers a group of people to help her deal with the drunk. These people seem to be speaking in Shakespearean language, which means they are part of the play. Forgive me, but who knew that Shrew was a play within a play? The Lord (Brian Harcourt) suggests that they help the poor drunk (Nathan Dunkin) reform by convincing him that he too is a lord. The Hostess (Hadley Boyd) brings him food and wine, the Haberdasher (Crystal Munoz) finds him a nice jacket, and young Bartholomew (Mathew Kerrigan) is convinced to put on a dress and pretend to be his lady. They command that the play be put on for the "lord's" benefit.

Now we enter the world of Padua, which in director Michael Mendelson's vision takes place in the swinging 1960s. The set is a clear reminder of Laugh-In, with its pastel colors and patterned walls with small doors that the actors can peep through. The costumes are witty reminders of that era, particularly the women's outfits and wigs. And the music throughout echoes Carnaby Street.

As usual in Shakespeare, we are presented with the situation surrounding the main characters long before they actually show up on stage. Baptista (Gary Powell) has two daughters. The younger, Bianca (Foss Curtis), is the delight of all the men, who long to marry her. But he will not allow her to marry until her older sister, Kate (Maureen Porter), finds a man. Kate is the shrew of the title, though to our modern eyes she merely seems assertive; she doesn't kowtow to the men, she doesn't primp and fuss over her appearance, and she says what's on her mind rather than batting her eyelashes and agreeing, as Bianca does.

Hortensio (Sam Dinkowitz) and Gremio (David Heath) both want to marry Bianca, but neither can have her. They decide to convince their pal Petruchio (James Farmer) to take on the challenge of turning Kate into a wife. Meanwhile, Lucentio (Peter Platt) has arrived in town with his manservant, Tranio (Grant Turner), and he too wants to meet and marry Bianca. And thus begin the disguises, impersonations, and farcical maneuvers without which no Shakespeare comedy is complete.

What's great about this production is that it's flat-out hilarious. Everyone gets a great gag, even the manservants (including Rusty Tennant in a variety of small roles, Joel Patrick Durham as Biondello, and Nikolas Hoback as Grumio). The cast is game for all kinds of physical comedy, and they play off each other beautifully. The entrances and exits are all brightly choreographed, and every character gets a big moment. Even Vicentio (Ted Schulz), who doesn't enter until the last few minutes of the play, has a great angry scene where he glowers at everyone on stage.

Farmer and Porter, as Petruchio and Kate, are outstanding. Porter finds modern touches in Kate's angry speeches in the first half of the play, and she challenges the formidable Farmer in their fight scenes. She makes Kate's harshness funny, and she even convinces when she gradually melts under Petruchio's maltreatment and comes to love him. (Whoever made the decision to have her wink broadly at the audience before delivering Kate's final monologue, however, was wrong: It undercuts our ability to believe in her transformation and, therefore, her feelings for her husband.) Farmer is a big hunk of a guy, but he's surprisingly delicate in his handling of the language, and it's easy to believe he's deeply in love and trying to find some way to get the girl to love him back.

The supporting cast is uniformly terrific, and they work together like a championship team. The standouts are Dunkin, who makes his drunken Christopher Sly endearing; he sits at the side watching the show, cheering the cast on, and eventually walks into the play, still holding his wine bottle; and Dinkowitz, whose Hortensio is hilarious and given to singing his dialogue. With his braying voice and improv-like comic skills, he made me think of Jack Black at his funniest, and he manages to work a Lady Gaga song and a Castilian lisp into his character. Everyone, however, is working at the highest level, and that's a tribute to director Mendelson.

By the end of the show, the actors from the introduction have been worked into the action of the play, and we get a final wrap-up from the drunk and the hostess. At that point, we've had such a great time with these characters, we don't want them to leave. I just wanted to sit there and watch them dance and party for a while longer. You won't want to go home either.