Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Two ambitious Minneapolis plays
Frank Theater beds tragedy within the comedy of The Taming of the Shrew
In a gorgeously costumed and playfully surreal production at the Old Arizona, Frank Theatre director Wendy Knox challenges audiences' expectations by directing Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew closer to tragedy than to comedy. But it was comedy that Shakespeare intended for Shrew and comedy that I anticipated. The dislocation between the playwright's intention, the director's interpretation and my expectations created tensions for me on opening night that were hard for me to resolve. I felt desolated and cheated by Katherina's automaton-like closing speech about wives obeying their husbands; there wasn't a flick of flirtation in it, not a glimmer of realized womanhood. Not until I drove home did I begin to understand Knox's take on Shrew, and then it resonated with me as a woman.
For Shrew to work as comedy, the spitting, railing and fiery Katherina needs to fall in love with her sudden husband, Petruchio; she needs to grow into womanly obedience by being tamed as much by her own desire for him as by his "training" of her.
Knox gives us a spitfire in Virginia Burke's Katharina. She's tough, pretty and physically and verbally pugnacious. This rag-tag Kate drags on a cigarette and flings Tampax at adversaries. But once her rich father Baptista, played by Tom Sherohman, trades her away in marriage like so much chattel, she becomes passive. Lee Adams as her husband Petruchio breaks her will by isolating her on his country estate, abusing his servants in front of her and playfully but determinedly depriving her of food, sleep and fine clothes, until she sways to his every caprice. There's no sense of a relationship between this Kate and Petruchio. For him, she's a possession to be tamed, like a fine but feisty falcon. For her, it's about shutting down emotionally in order to survive the hostile environment created by her husband. At play's end, she's an abused woman with a broken spirit.
Viewed through the 21st century lens of our relative enlightenment, the deliberate use of fear, hunger and sleep-deprivation to change behavior amounts to abuse. No two ways about it. And it is present in Shrew. But it's still a hard reading to pull off, because Shakespeare embeds the play with the merry confusions of amorous old men, suitors disguised as tutors, and servants impersonating masters, all the Elizabethan devices of light-hearted comedy that set up expectations of a happy resolution. Shakespeare also wrote his text to support a manly and likeable Petruchio, and Adams' Petruchio is attractive in a mildly oafish way.
Paul de Cordova as Tranio and the impish Emily Zimmer as Biondello light up the stage with their presence and, in one of many pleasing directorial touches, Knox has Michael Croswell and Mike Russell play period music onstage. Kathy Kohl's zany costumes range from modern janitors' suits to the glories of Elizabethan dress and stun the eye.
With its large cast, Shrew is an ambitious play for Frank Theatre, and Knox's brave reading touches me as a woman, but it couches awkwardly within the bed of Shakespeare's comedy.
The Taming of the Shrew runs through November 24. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 2:00 p.m. At Old Arizona, 2821, Nicollet Ave. S. Minneapolis. $14-$18. Call 612-724-3760 or visit www.franktheatre.org.
Interact gleefully roasts one king-size bird
How refreshing in this time of absent Democratic condemnation of corporate malfeasance, presidential warmongering and the disquieting implication that criticism of national policy equals un-Americanism, to watch Interact Theater's thoroughly irreverent and topical satire, Cloud Cuckooland.
This ambitious adaptation of Aristophanes' almost 1,500 year-old comedy The Birds gains extra oomph from the fact that Interact's 30-person ensemble is handicapped. But rest assured, the actors' disabilities in no way handicap their sheer joy of performance, and their ingenuous embrace of the material serves to sharpen the satire of Cloud Cuckooland.
In director Jeanne Calvit's delightful and theatrical use of simple props, the gods Hera and Zeus, played by Mary Thomas and Adam Mosley, tell of the creation of the world and the problems that arrive with man. Man evolves into Shrub, a none-too-bright but ruthless corporate type, played with cowboy panache by Eric Nelson, the lone professional actor on stage. His quirky speaking style, in a Texan accent, leaves no doubt about the target of his parody. We watch the greedy and manipulative Shrub ruin a perfectly good corporation and then a perfectly good country. The gods banish him to learn from the birds, who live in harmony, but guess what? Yup, you got it - Shrub corrupts even the birds!
True to Greek theater, a chorus sings much of the story. Soprano Tracy Sletten leads Interact's wheelchair-bound chorus of four with clear-voiced confidence. Less easy to hear are the words of the large ensemble songs, and that's a pity, since I laughed at the snatches I could distinguish.
Calvit pulls lively performances from her actors. As Shrub's best pal Lucifer, nimble Billy Tomaszewski imps around with his devil's pitchfork, Eric Wheeler as Adam is a natural ham, and Andie Kiley plays Eve with bright-eyed self-mockery. Michael Brindley's fluid arms and hands bring grace to his dancing.
Alan Ernst and John Boler lead three musicians from Interact's ensemble on a loft above the stage, and if an odd off-key note or two sounds, it so suits the rambunctious action on stage that it might well be deliberate.
Interact's zesty Cloud Cuckooland leaps into the vacuum of national dissent over questionable presidential leadership, and it's a grand chuckle into the bargain. Runs through November 9. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Interact Theater, 212, Third Ave. N. Suite 140, Minneapolis. $10-$12. 612-339-5145. www.interactCenter.com.