Monday, June 17, 2013
Theater review: Trinity Shakespeare Festival adds new twist to an old story in The Taming of the Shrew
If you think you've seen this play, we guarantee you haven't seen it this way.
FORT WORTH Has there ever been a bad show at Trinity Shakespeare Festival? I haven't seen one and the streak continues with The Taming of the Shrew, playing in repertory with Julius Caesar this season. Managing Director Harry Parker and Artistic Director T.J. Walsh have a knack for making Shakespeare's 400-year-old stories new and interesting. And this was certainly evident in Walsh's direction of The Taming of the Shrew.
The familiar story concerns Katherine Minola and her young sister Bianca. Every eligible bachelor in Padua wants Bianca but is afraid of Katherine. The father, Baptista, has one rule. Katherine must marry first. So the competing bachelors must work together to get Katherine married, but to whom? Petruchio of Verona comes to town, a bachelor of a different sort, and when they throw down the gauntlet, he accepts. The rest of the story is about him "taming" the shrew. Therein lies the comedy.
There seem to be two kinds of Shakespeare productions. One is the historically-accurate kind that depends on language and action in a simple, virtually-empty setting, like the plays in the Globe Theatre in the 1600s. The other type places the same stories into elaborate, time-period accurate, often beautifully-artsy sets. The sets don't replace the language and action but put the stories into settings modern audiences relate to. Trinity Shakespeare uses the latter.
Walsh places the story in Padua and Verona in 1900 and the set is a visual tableaux, colorful, realistic and functional. The Padua setting was a full-stage two-story town showing Café Minola, the Minola's house above it and neighborhood doors all around.
Petruchio's home in Verona consisted of a drop-down great-room wall piece behind a long heavy wooden dining table you'd see in a country estate. A travel scene between the two towns was played in front of a scrim showing a sky scene. Tristan Decker was listed as scenic designer for this show, but it had to take a large crew to build such a complex set. The visual was striking!
Michael Skinner's lighting design used subtle highlights to showcase specific moments and provided contrast between bright stage and well-placed dark moments. Music from two different Italian period styles helped identify Padua versus Verona, including songs sung by the actors.
This Shrew had twenty actors dressed in 1900 aristocratic suits and long dresses; ornately beautifully for both men and women and designed by Aaron Patrick DeClerk. This is a play of character deception and several actors played characters playing disguised characters, and so had to dress and re-dress often. I was amazed how well every costume fit each actor as if they were personally tailored for them.
The Taming of the Shrew, like all Shakespeare plays, uses minor characters for major story-telling. Every actor in this ensemble played their minor moments with class, bringing focus to the main characters, but then also played their spotlight moments with perfect Shakespearean language and their own interpretation of their character's place in the story. Whether it was Amber Marie Flowers as the waitress, playing her silent-running love tryst with Bradley Gosnell as Biondello, the entire staff of Petruchio's home in Verona who play along with his "taming" scheme, Baptista (Stephen Pounders) being the dutiful father of such different daughters, or the competition for the hand of Bianca (Jenny Ledel) by Lucentio (Alex Organ), Gremio (Brandon Potter), Hortensio (Richard Haratine), or Tranio (G. David Trosko), all the players were powerful, on-point with the story line and made their scenes a real joy.
David Coffee played Grumio, the old servant of Petruchio who's more powerful than his station would assume. He opened each act, provided support for Petruchio's plans and entertained with song and "foolish" comedy. Coffee seems to relish playing these eccentric quirky Shakespearean parts and they flourish in his hands.
He has a knack for providing the right amount of stand-out character without becoming the focus of the story. His singing is really good and he sings several songs, including "O Solo Mio" during opening and closing scenes. He's fun to watch when he's observing the action. He puts his whole body and face into his character and when he's the center, he commands the stage.
Of course, the story is about Katherine and Petruchio, their odd courtship (more a mugging than love affair), Petruchio's taming of Katherine, and their love story. It's so well-known and often-played that it takes two strong actors to make the story fresh. That would be Trisha Miller and Chuck Huber.
To say these two were strong is an understatement. They took the stage with all the power a flaming wench who scorned mankind and a head-strong man intent on victory would need, but then they began a deft dance that carried them through a long transition to the soulful, sensitive love scenes at the end.
Their sparring in the opening was like two prize fighters exploring the weakness of each other. Their time in Verona when Katherine is starved and fatigued until she breaks is a harsh one, given the way we view men and women's relationships now, but it's a monumental battle that changes both, and Huber and Miller played it with great skill, not going overboard but filling their roles to the max. In the end, there are scenes of love and togetherness you must see in relation to all that went before — real tenderness.
Placing the setting in 1900 Italy added a subtle, happy coincidence to the show. A character was added who was only alive and important during that time. He supplied comic moments throughout the show with nothing but a freeze and a glance and then performed a precious sequence in the final scenes.
Anyone who knows opera would recognize the name Puccini in the cast list but probably not question that he wasn't part of Shakespeare's story. In a stunning coup of look-alike magic, Wyn Delano played Puccini during the time he was composing Turandot, the opera he was writing when he died. Anyone who knows Turandot recognizes the parallel story of an impossible-to-wed princess and her impossible-to-stop pursuer. Because of this ingenuity, we heard the outstandingly beautiful operatic voice of Wyn Delano singing a bit of "Nessun Dorma," arguably the most famous Puccini song, thanks to Pavarotti. This was a moment of pure joy as the audience recognized the singer's talent and a nice added touch to this story one of those things that makes Walsh such a great director of Shakespeare.
The Taming of the Shrew is a story you might think you've seen before and don't have to see again. Don't believe that! My daughter, who's seen Shrew numerous times and played its scenes said, "Huber was the best Petruchio I've ever seen." I would echo that and add that this is the best production I've seen.
If you've ever wanted to experience the grandeur and grand comedy of Shakespeare, let Trinity Shakespeare Festival show you how it's done.
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