By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
With a curtain time of 8:15 p.m., performances of Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' current production of The Taming of the Shrew light up the outdoor Samuell-Grand Amphitheater just before the sun has dropped completely out of sight. Above the cool green lawn sloping up from the stage, purple streaks of sunset make a stunning splash behind Robert Vukasovich's rosy valentine of a set. Those big, fleshy Cupids he has gazing down from stage right and left appear to be blessing the crowd with dreams of midsummer romance.
And what a romantic night it turns out to be. Willful Petruchio (played by tall, bearded Jack Birdwell) and his pretty, petulant Katharine (Donjalea Reynolds Chrane) meet, fight, marry, fight, make up and make a lovely couple. This feather-light production, directed with giddy doses of slapstick by Abigail Crabtree, softens Kate and Petruchio's chattering battle scenes and adds some clever twists. Crabtree and her designers have transported the action to the Gibson-girl era of the 1890s, and the period trappings froth things up. Jaunty music-hall tunes by Dennis Davenport introduce the scenes. Ladies in leg-o'-mutton sleeves announce the locations--"Meanwhile, back in Padua"--with vaudeville signs scripted in curlicues. All of Shakespeare's familiar gimmicks, the switched identities, unmarried sisters, worthy suitors, worried fathers, stumbling clowns, are intact, but they tumble forth from a cast dressed in confectionary costumes done in cupcake colors.
Pretty as it is, this Shrew takes its time catching the audience's full attention. The first 20 minutes, before the first real glimpses of Petruchio or Kate, involve a stage full of peripheral characters and many mouthfuls of exposition. Grumio and Gremio are easily confused. And which one's Hortensio and which one's Lucentio?
As the evening glides into what the French call "le bleu," the silky moments between day and night that color everything blue-gray, the mind too easily wanders from the talky business at hand. During the opening scenes of the play, competition comes from the rising hums of locusts in the park's tall trees, the scents of mimosa and cedar in the breeze, even the flickers of citronella candles on neighboring picnic blankets. All that intoxicating atmosphere makes concentrating on the Bard's convoluted speeches early in Act 1 just about impossible.
So give it time, pour another glass of Shiraz and tune back in as darkness falls. Everything becomes clear soon enough in Shrew, one of Shakespeare's most familiar, most done and redone comedies. In this spoof of marriage contracts and feminine stereotypes, Petruchio, the dowry chaser, accepts a challenge to "tame" angry Katharine Minola, a rich man's daughter whose younger, prettier sister, Bianca (Denise Pacific), can't marry her beloved, Lucentio (Justin Martindale), until Kate weds first. Kate keeps that from happening by keeping men at bay with torrents of verbal abuse and a tendency to lob objects at their heads.
In too many interpretations of Taming of the Shrew, Kate is played so shrilly that she's hard for anyone to love. She can so easily come across as a shrieking nutcase bruised emotionally by paternal neglect (Daddy favors Bianca) and a near-psychotic distrust of men. In this Shrew, however, things are different. Chrane avoids the obvious and makes her Kate funny and likable, a little bit of a klutz and, eventually, more than willing to succumb to Petruchio's considerable charms. Chrane's performance has one annoying flaw: her tendency to gasp audibly between lines, as if she has the hiccups. Otherwise, she's delightful. As for Birdwell's Petruchio, well, if he's not as memorable as he might be in the role, he's certainly more handsome in that kilt and leather kneeboots than most classical actors need to be.
This is a lovely play, but not one of Shakespeare's most quotable works. Among the few standout phrases to emerge from Shreware "Thereby hangs a tale" and "I'll not budge an inch," not exactly on par with "To be or not to be..." (return next week for the review of the Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet). This play's importance lies in its bold explorations of female virtue and male domination. Kate rebels against the conventional requirement of the time that women remain modest, silent and obedient. She roars for attention and isn't above kicking someone in the keister to get it. Good for her. Imagine how this played for audiences 400 years ago.
Petruchio "tames" Kate by zeroing in on her need for control. In the best scene in the play, and the best-played scene in this production, the newlyweds return to Petruchio's house in the country, where the groom pretends that everything must be just so for his "perfect love." The meat is burned, so he doesn't let Kate eat a bite. The new dress she loves looks wrong, so he sends it back. The bed is made badly, so he denies her sleep. Shockingly cruel to his servants (who appear to be in on the ruse, another nice touch by director Crabtree), Petruchio attempts to "kill a wife with kindness." He smothers Kate with charm and compliments. Confused but flattered, she has no choice but to shut up and fall in love.
Shakespeare makes it clear that Kate isn't really a shrew, just misunderstood. Then at the end, he confuses us by having her spout a final speech about how a woman who is "forward, peevish, sullen, sour" must bend to the will of her "loving lord." Has she turned submissive? Or is it Kate who has tamed Petruchio into loving a difficult, strong-minded woman? Shakespeare leaves it to us to decide the moral of this story. But if that's too much work for a summer eve, lie back on the blanket and watch the moon rise.