Slick Willie

Playwright Paul Rudnick captured the contemporary public's disdain for William Shakespeare with one utterly accurate declaration from a character in his aptly named comedy I Hate Hamlet: "It's like algebra on stage!"

Just as millions of us sat through that high school mathematical torture learning just enough to pass (or in some cases, not even that much) but not enough to even have a vague comprehension of what the whole edifice of algebra represented, so the big picture of Willie the Shake's comedies, tragedies, romances, and historical plays is washed out in a flood of Amstel Light at the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas. The festival's organizers ought to conduct an experiment after the show: pass out pop quizzes with the names of the production's characters listed and ask patrons how the people onstage are related to each other, or just to scribble a brief description of what has transpired. The festival might overwhelmingly discover that the allure of Shakespeare's lyricism is primarily to serve as a highfalutin soundtrack of cultural noise while you get tanked, chew munchables, and chat with your friends outside on a summer night. It has served that function for me, on occasion. But then I've been criticized as a vulgarian for a credo to which I still cling with sticky fingers: "Shakespeare should be read and not heard."

I don't think I'm entirely alone on this one. Peruse scholarship or theater reviews, and you'll find plenty of grumps who believe that many contemporary artists don't do Shakespeare right. They mess up the rhythm of the words, or don't exactly understand what they're saying in the first place (Shakespeare is as subject to exegesis as the New Testament). The man's language is indeed galvanic on the page, but first you have to decode Elizabethan linguistics (or at least, our standardized version of it) to get the current going. That's the beauty of a book; you can instantly reread any passage you didn't get. Not so when you're trapped inside a theater with actors delivering his dialogue, so full of poetic metaphor, contradiction, and reversals of meaning. College and high school classes have made me fairly familiar with his tragedies and a couple of comedies, but I feel like a thirsty man in a rainstorm at many Shakespearean productions, drinking only the meager puddles I can collect in my cupped hands while the rest washes incomprehensibly over me.

Let me say I drank to the dregs of Willie's tankard at Kitchen Dog Theater's rambunctious, fiercely cogent The Taming of the Shrew, and stumbled out of the theater afterward giddy from the bender (that's a metaphor; I only had one beer during intermission, I swear). This is easily the most enjoyable, cleanly executed Shakespearean excursion I've ever undertaken. The biggest compliment I can pay director Aaron Ginsburg and his unbelievably athletic (verbally and physically) cast is to say, it probably won't matter if you've never seen live Shakespeare before: Get thee to this hilarious show. You should be able to separate and understand characters, motives, relationships, and themes and still recline in the lavish beauty of the author's language.

That's really the struggle, isn't it? Joining your head and heart like sidekick pirates to snatch the golden pile of Shakespeare's art. What director Ginsburg and his sound designer Scott Shaddock have done in this luminous comic production is speed up and punctuate the material with a series of aural motifs that both underscore the meaning of the lines and give you the breathing space to process them. This isn't a director and a designer sticking Post-it note interpretations onto Shakespeare's text (a 1990 New York Taming of the Shrew set in the Wild West and starring Morgan Freeman and Tracey Ullman, anyone?). The Italian commedia dell'arte makeup and frantic physicality is so well suited to the time, place, and tone of Shakespeare's comedy, it barely even feels like an "idea" imposed by the director. And the tambourines, drums, whistles, and collective shouts that highlight that last wacky moment you might have missed don't feel gratuitous here, because without these musical comic sound effects, a lot of audience members would miss them. In fact, audience members do miss them every weekend in Shakespearean productions around the country. And hey, if it takes a Latin textbook getting slammed shut on some guy's genitals to help highlight the ebbs and flows of character relationships, then open the damn book.

What I appreciated most about this Dog's Shrew is how the wooing competition between Lucentio (Jason Lambert) and Hortensio (Michael Federico) for the rather too coy hand of sweet li'l sis Bianca (Janie Haddad) itself competes for and sometimes captivates your attention with the same intensity usually reserved for the controversial "leads," cruel and blustery Petruchio (Chris Carlos) and combative Katerina (Jane McFarlane). In only two of various disguises in this hall of masks, Lucentio becomes a Latin scholar and Hortensio a musician. Lambert and Federico are rib-rattling funny in their faux intellectual-artistic combat over the passive-aggressive Bianca, who eventually, of course, chooses Lucentio in a writhing celebration of whipped cream, handcuffs, and slapping.

The play has earned its misogynistic rep, of course, from the way Petruchio breaks Kate's spirit by starving her, depriving her of sleep, and forcing her to identify the sun as the moon and vice versa when he says so. I knew Chris Carlos could be captivating, but I never realized what an intimidating asshole he could be: His Petruchio is a lot less roguishly endearing than other interpretations I've seen. Also, Jane McFarlane's Katerina isn't the temperamental tomboy who typically stomps around the stage: she's haughty and aloof, and her rejection of the role that's been thrust upon her is symbolized by McFarlane's playing most of it without the clown makeup everyone else wears. Director Ginsburg helps both actors wind their way to that tricky "thy husband is ruler" monologue that a beaten Kate delivers, a scene in which Kate and Petruchio chillingly exchange roles: She is now prepared to play the fool in the face (literally) of his inescapably real brutality. No heavy-handed feminist interpolation or souped-up irony is necessary for a sad but not disruptive climax to the evening's violent frivolity.

The proof's in the kidney pudding, folks. When's the last time you sat at a Shakespeare comedy that consistently brought the house down? The Saturday-night show I attended was packed with folks who were comprehending and loudly enjoying a 400-year-old play performed by a cast of 14 actors who excelled down to the last couplet. At first, I thought my admiration might be a generational thing--director Ginsburg and most of the cast members are close to my age, and maybe their attention spans were warped during adolescence by MTV too. If so, their creation of a purely theatrical equivalent to the fast-edit format of television so that audiences could approach a classic more comfortably was dazzling. But you needn't have been spellbound at the first broadcast of "Video Killed the Radio Star" to have problems staying vertical as you trudge through Shakespeare's dense language. I suspect many of the older ticketbuyers were grateful too, if unconsciously so. Kitchen Dog's dramaturgy, its talent, and its disciplined imagination would, in the best of all possible worlds, enchant snobby theater historians and TV-addicted stage neophytes alike.

The Taming of the Shrew runs through November 22. Call (214) 953-1055.

With their current show, this season's opener In the Jungle of the Cities, and last season's closer The Glass Menagerie, Kitchen Dog Theater has hit three in a row straight out of the stadium. Anyone who's followed their career for the last five years or so can attest that what was sometimes a lot of talented SMU pups performing clever tricks onstage for your approval has obedience-trained itself into delivering theater that's visionary and, most importantly, disciplined. These days, it seems, they won't walk across that high-wire until they've perfected their toehold.

Nowhere is this more emblematic than in the hiring of Kitchen Dog's new managing director, playwright Meghan Saleebey. Could this coolly professional businesswoman sitting across from me at the MAC really be the same feminist firebrand who raised critical and audience eyebrows with works like Toxic Shock a few years back? Getting a paid position with a small Dallas theater company has to be an eye-opener for an artist--if we keep the books balanced, we can help ensure a longer future of getting even more people's backs up over our work.

But Saleebey has never been some crackpot performance artist; she can rattle off the kind of bureau-chat necessary for the survival of an arts group in today's anti-NEA world. "I still do social work on the side," she says, referring to her 1997 master's in social work from the University of Kansas. "Before Kitchen Dog, I'd been doing consulting work for Juvenile Justice Associates out of Colorado. I'm using some of those same skills in a business capacity for the theater--applying a systems perspective that includes maximizing and prioritizing an organization as well as mediation skills to engage people in the community about our work."

Part of that engaging the community is Kitchen Dog's upcoming 1999 New Works Festival, an event featuring one mainstage production and five readings from scripts by new playwrights in Texas, the Southwest, or around the country. In this venture, Kitchen Dog will be linked annually with a dozen other small, adventurous theater companies around the nation in cities such as Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

"It's called the National New Play Network," Kitchen Dog artistic director Dan Day says. "David Goldman from the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center wanted to revive a sense of American theater. He had the feeling that important new work had to spread out beyond the East Coast. He chose the theaters by reputation, flew out and saw them, and hooked everyone up. The idea, hopefully, is to exchange, develop, and produce new plays among the Network companies."

Kitchen Dog is taking up Goldman's near-activist banner. His New Play manifesto sums it up thus: "At the close of the 20th century, American theater stands at a crossroads as it did at the end of the last century. At that time, audiences had melodrama, farce, vaudeville, burlesque, and imports from Britain...but little home-grown theater. Today, TV and film generally fill the need (for) melodrama and vaudeville, and we again rely heavily on British imports. What happened to American theater


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