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.

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Jimmy Fowler