Gentler, Sunnier Taming of the Shrew
Also see Bob's review of Peter Pan
This is not a Shrew with emotional turbulence. The costumes and scenery place us in an Italian village during the 1920s or '30s. Bonnie J. Monte's production plays as an Italianate version of the country village comedies of early French cinema (think Raimu and Fernandel).
Baptista Minola is here a wealthy and jovial gentleman farmer and rancher, who is well beloved by the local villagers with whom he carouses. Baptista enjoys his horses and loves his fierce horse-riding daughter Katherina. Determined that the forbidding Kate find a husband, Baptista will not allow the betrothal of his younger daughter, the pretty and demure, dully inexpressive Bianca. Katherina doesn't seem to have that much to say, and Bianca far less.
As in those earthy French film comedies, the women take a back seat to the men whose planning and plotting (and foolishness) dominate the proceedings. Both of Bianca's local suitors, Hortensio and Gremio, are pompous bourgeois who have their eye on Baptista's wealth, but they clearly are too old and unromantic for a lass like Bianca. The handsome, well-born Lucentio sets his cap for Bianca as soon as he sets eye on her. Lucentio changes clothes and identities with his servant Tranio, and the silliness has just begun.
There's another well-born fellow on his way, the down on his uppers, Petruchio. He is accompanied by his recalcitrant servant, Grumio. Having come to wive it wealthily in Padua, Petruchio agrees to marry Katherina, then sets to tame her.
Steve Wilson is the heart and soul of this gentle Shrew. Wilson is the most relaxed and charming Petruchio imaginable. Devoid of evil intent, cruelty or braggadocio, Wilson brings an offhand manner to Petruchio which makes it clear that he has an honorable task that he is determined to perform, and that he will be no harsher than it proves necessary to achieve his goal. His handsome, gentle giant presence cements his appeal to us. Maybe it is the setting, but Wilson here also has a cinematic equivalent from that era to me, that is the immensely likeable presence of Joel McCrea in a Preston Sturges comedy.
It is my impression that director Bonnie J. Monte has made judicious and substantive cuts in the text to soften this battle of the sexes, and thus enhance Wilson's ability to charm us. During the scene at Petruchio's country house, Petruchio, apparently sensing that Kate is ready to yield to him, says "Good, sweet Kate, be merry" with such affectionate gentleness that it feels as if these irresistible words by themselves have melted Kate. It is in the service of this concept of Shrew that the reliable Victoria Mack moderates her Katherina. Although Mack is appropriately snippy and angry when we first meet her, her Kate offers only perfunctory resistance to Petruchio before succumbing to his first kind words.
Joe Costa (Baptista) perfectly establishes Monte's concept with the sunny tone and warm personality with which he imbues his local lord of the manor. The comedy team of Scott Whitehurst (Hortensio) and John Seidman (Gremio) get the lion's share of the laughs while clearly conveying the details of their shenanigans along with the other plotters.
Each of the conniving servants, James Michael Reilly (Grumio), Jon Barker (Tranio) and Joel Rainwater (Biondello/Curtis) are distinctive and add to the evening's amusement. Jack Moran is a handsomely boyish and appealing Lucentio to Katie Fabel's lovely Bianca.
Beautifully lit by Michael Giannitti, John Hobbie's airy set features a tower-like structure (sometimes augmented with flowers and plants) which rotates to represent four different settings. Erin Murphy's costumes are stunning. Not only are they colorful and attractive, but the costumes are crucial in defining the social status of the players as well as the updated setting.
Bonnie J. Monte has begun her 20th season as Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Artistic Director with a delightfully fresh and modern The Taming of the Shrew.
The Taming of the Shrew continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday 7:30 pm / Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm; Mats: Saturday 2 pm /Sunday 3 pm) through June 27, 2010, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare; directed by Bonnie J. Monte