Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Fortunately, Southwest Shakespeare Company and director Amie Bjorklund prove it still works and not just as a period piece. Their production also gives the audience plenty to think about concerning gender relations and the way marriage and relationships have changed over the years. Bjorklund plays up the comic shenanigans in the play, turning several of the male supporting characters into comical buffoons tripping over themselves to win Bianca's hand, and she ensures the female roles are strong: Katherine is portrayed as an independent woman who is less subservient and more on equal footing with Petruchio instead of being constantly overpowered by his inexcusable behavior. Those slight tweaks and shifts in focus help tame and soften the un-modern marital views and sexism while giving thought to the possibility that even in an arranged marriage love can blossom. Having husband and wife Quinn Mattfeld and Betsy Mugavero play Petruchio and Katherine adds another fun dimension to the characters. Bjorklund, Mattfeld and Mugavero also manage to make you root for the couple to unite.
The plot is fairly simple. Gremio, Hortensio and Lucentio all wish to wed the young and beautiful Bianca, but her father Baptista will not let her be married before her volatile, shrewish and older sister Katherine weds. Fortunately, Hortensio's friend, the pompous Petruchio, arrives in town seeking an affluent bride, so Hortensio urges him to woo the hot-tempered Kate. Since Petruchio doesn't care what woman he weds, as long as she comes with a large dowry, he takes the challenge. Can Petruchio tame Kate? And if he can, who will win Bianca's hand?
With vocal sparring that is perfection and chemistry that sizzles, Quinn Mattfeld and Betsy Mugavero are very good as Petruchio and Katherine. Mattfeld has the swagger and confidence of an arrogant, pompous, and overbearing womanizer down pat, though you also get a clear sense that he isn't quite as successful as he lets on and doesn't know if he'll actually get Kate to break. Mugavero is exceptionally strong and appropriately rebellious, feisty and full of fire as this forceful woman who is shocked by Petruchio's boorish behavior. As their relationship develops, there is a clear sense that even though she may state at the play's end what the role of a good, perfect and obedient wife is, Kate will never be subservient to Petruchio and the two will go on as equals, with plenty of verbal and physical fireworks between them, along with a whole lot of love. Petruchio hasn't exactly tamed Kate but finally met his match.
The fine and fun supporting cast feature numerous Southwest Shakespeare regulars as well as some new to the company. Beau Heckman is always exceptional and his turn as Baptista is rich and rewarding. Kelly Nicole makes a fetching SSC debut as the lovely and sweet Bianca. As the three eligible suitors, Jim Coates, Clay Sanderson and Dalton T. Davis are all unique and hilarious. And Jeff Deglow, Phillip Herrington and Breona Conrad provide fine support as servants to the suitors.
The production uses the same basic set by Kristen Peterson that the company used for its fall repertory shows, which works well for the various locations, with added elements by Patrick Walsh, including two large, rotating chess pieces that humorously play up the sexual and gender negotiations in the piece. Maci Cae Hosler's costume designs are stunning, with rich, deep colors and an abundance of varied patterns and fabrics. Angela Kabasan-Gonzalez has come up with a very fun hair style for Kate that immediately projects her shrewish and uptight demeanor. Drake Dole's lighting is good, though there are a few dark spots in the back corners that could be more brightly lit.
The Taming of the Shrew is a play that some theatre companies shy away from presenting, due to the sexist and harsh treatment of women it presents, and also the over-plotted and convoluted courting of Bianca that features assumed and false identities to the point of being a little silly, a bit muddled, and somewhat tedious. It's also a little off-putting seeing a woman talked about as a commodity where a father can either gain financially by agreeing to wed her off to a wealthy suitor or get rid of her by offering a hefty dowry. Fortunately, with just a slight adjustment to the way the characters are portrayed and with minimal changes to the text, Southwest Shakespeare Company shows the play can still work while also being a very funny and enjoyable romantic romp that both challenges and reinforces past and current gender dynamics.
Southwest Shakespeare Company's The Taming of the Shrew through March 9, 2019, at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa AZ. Tickets can be purchased at http://swshakespeare.org or by calling 480-644-6500
Director: Amie Bjorklund
* Appears courtesy of Actors' Equity Association