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Duke City Repertory Theatre Flaunts a Wild
Taming of the Shrew

Also see Rosemary's review of Playboy of the Western World

Taming of the Shrew
Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin and
Frank Taylor Green

Ads for DCRT's Taming of the Shrew admonish us to leave political correctness at the door (not possible). Perhaps a new twist by a theatre company I admire might amuse me enough to diminish my aversion to a play I haven't re-read in 25 or maybe 45 years. I confess going to this production of Shakespeare's classic battle of the sexes with a feminist chip on my shoulder. For 420 years audiences have been chewing over this question: Is the Bard as hyper-sexist and misogynist as the title and text taken at face value suggest?

John Hardy's adaptation shattered my expectations. The DCRT production bursting with verbal and physical bombast made me question my previous judgments and almost convinced me that Shakespeare isn't really celebrating male dominance and female submission. It's all a game in which the craziest players and antics win. We know that in Shakespearean comedy nobody means what they say. Every speaker speaks with twisted tongue in cheek. Every player plays through multiple disguises. A dash of theatre of the absurd separates the clever from the clueless players.

On the surface, Shakespeare gives us the story of Baptista of Padua, a man with more money than sense. He's all about the stock market. He's hot to sell his daughters at their ripest to the highest bidders at the peak of the market. His elder daughter, sharp-tongued, hot-tempered Katherine the shrew is resisting being a commodity; while her sister, sweet soft-spoken Bianca, is enjoying the wooing game. Many suitors yearn to possess the controllable Bianca, while Kate the cursed says she'll lead apes in hell, the supposed curse of unmarried women, after her silly sister wafts off into wedded bliss.

As in all Shakespearean comedy, disguises spice up the wooing. Lucentio, a lusty young student from Pisa, changes places with his servant in order to gain more intimate access to his beloved Bianca as her tutor. They make love in the coded language of a Latin lesson. Thus they outwit Bianca's older less desirable suitors. Sexual desire drives all comedy since Aristophanes and long before. Hardy's physical action accentuates the Bard's sexually explicit puns and wordplay with broad gestures that leave no doubt about what everybody is after—sex and money, money for sex, sex for money. Every mention of a man from Mantua, for example, involves pointing to his well-endowed manhood, worth potentially more in the sex and money game than that of the girlish pedant from Pisa who wins Bianca.

An eccentric cocksure gentleman from Verona named Petruchio enters the arena with motives as mercenary as Baptista's and much more wit than his contemporary Lucentio. Like his future father-in-law, Petruchio enters the game to win big money. To gain half of Baptista's fabled wealth he vows to tame any beast or woman. On first meeting Kate he spars with her verbally (Shakespeare's words) and engages her in their first round of physical combat (Hardy's direction). Neither wins but both exit panting for more matches. Because patriarchal rules tip the scales, giving the man the upper hand, Petruchio simply makes a deal with Kate's father and drags her off.

It seems that Petruchio "tames" Kate by breaking her down, starving her, depriving her of sleep, making her say the sun is the moon and other absurdities. She proves she's his match by playing his game, recognizing that his winning is her only survival. Hardy's production takes what Shakespeare has written and catapults it over the top by exaggerating Kate's meekness in performing the submission speech ("Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign"). Their final perhaps undisguised flirtation and dance suggest that are they are crowing together about winning money off her father and the boring clueless Lucentio and Bianca.

John Hardy brings to this production thirty years in theater and life-long research and curiosity about the Bard's multiple layers of mystery, especially in this most enigmatic of comedies. Hardy has directed and acted in many plays around the country. Recently he gave a brilliant performance as the ambivalent professor in DCRT's production of Oleanna. Fifty productions of fifteen of his own plays have been staged.

Hardy's set design is a model of economy. He has wrapped steps for entrances, exits, and platform speeches around the two thick supporting beams that hold the roof of this former gas station. He has transformed an acting obstruction into an architectural asset for this performance. Other platforms and benches serve as podiums and percussion. Actors punctuate scenes by beating out rhythms of racing hearts to keep the energy flowing. Hardy's ultimate economy is trimming the script and reducing the cast to thirteen characters played by six actors.

DCRT Artistic Director Amelia Ampuero has designed clever costumes that allow actors to change character in front of us with a twist of a sash. All wear similar androgynous black trousers, white shirts, and black vests, resembling the wait staff in an upscale restaurant. Scarves and sashes in different red, white and black designs reveal the character. Most striking is double casting the sisters as the servant of the other sister's suitor. As Baptista's daughters they drape triangular scarlet sashes suggesting skirts. Inside out around the neck, sashes become emblems of servitude. The minimal lighting design by Rose A. Nuchins and stage management by Guy Fachon contribute to the production's economy. (See my review of Oleanna for more on Hardy, Ampuero, and Fachon.)

Having only six actors perform the whole play puts all actors center stage. Fortunately, all six play well together. But brightest of all are the two leading actors, not only because they are given the Bard's best lines and the director's most shining moments, but because they are both in their performing prime.

Frank Taylor Green, whose credentials are described in my review of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, which he directed, gives us a Petruchio so wild, so energetic, so mad, that we gasp with awe at the marvel of live theater itself. Green is all over the stage at once—dancing, cavorting, crawling on all fours, warbling in falsetto, just for this audience in this moment, never to be recaptured exactly like this again. Green's Petruchio grows in something that passes for wisdom right before our eyes as he out-wits everybody except perhaps Kate, whom he recognizes finally as his match and his real beloved. If only to see Green go wild before you, peel yourself away from your sofa and remote to expose yourself to taming.

Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin, last seen in DCRT's production of Trust, matches Green's wild antics first as spit-fire Kate resisting the hypocrisy of wooing and then as trophy wife hauled off kicking. In the final act, we observe Sandlin's quick-witted, quick-study Kate with a mask of stoicism and minimal body language [shrew]dly sizing up her prospects and realizing that her success comes from partnering with her husband. If he's good at winning money, she'll win by beating him at his own game. As Lucentio's servant, Sandlin plays Tranio disguised as his master plighting his troth to Bianca. Sandlin plays through gender-bending layers of disguise; we see her wooing her own sister; even when she's Tranio playing Lucentio, we still see her as Kate. Sandlin, who has twenty years of acting, singing, and writing credentials in Minneapolis and Albuquerque, will direct DCRT's next show, The Last 5 Years.

Mike Ostroski, last seen in the title role of DCRT's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, gives us a lovably arrogant Baptista and an hilarious Tailor to Petruchio. Handsome young Isaac Guerin Christie, who has performed in Norwich, England, and Albuquerque, creates a lovesick Lucentio who can't take his eyes off Bianca. Justin Young, recently seen in Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, plays the hopeless old suitor Hortensio, Petruchio's father Vincentio, and another servant of Petruchio. Lauren Myers plays the silly Bianca as an alternately petulant and giggly adolescent and also Petruchio's servant Grumio as a Puckish elf who's trying to game the gamers, especially his master. Myers has recently performed in DCRT's Trust, Mother Road's Love Song, and Fusion Theatre's August: Osage County.

Duke City Repertory Theatre is performing The Taming of the Shrew at The Filling Station, 1024 4th St. SW, Albuquerque, NM 87102, (between Avenida Cesar Chavez and Coal); February 3 to 13; Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Due to the nature of this show and venue, DCRT will not seat late-comers. Adult tickets are $20; Student/Senior/Military are $12. For information and tickets, go to www.dukecityrep.com or call 505.797.7081.


Photo: Amelia Ampuero  

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-- Rosemary Keefe



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