by JK Clarke
Shakespeare’s comedies are meant to be merry. Too often analysis of these plays get bogged down in breakdowns of meaning, symbolism and social acceptability. But one simply cannot lose sight of the fact that these well-written, sometimes frivolous, but always romantically upbeat pieces are meant to provide a couple hours of amusing distraction: both in Shakespeare’s time and now. So, it’s always refreshing to find a company that fully embraces that value and has as much fun producing these plays as the audience has watching them. Such a company is Shakespeare Off-Broadway, whose latest production (ending today, unfortunately) is the beloved The Taming of the Shrew.
While Shrew is one of those plays over-analyzed ad infinitum because of its coarse misogyny, it’s also an absolute lark, and that’s exactly how Shakespeare Off-Broadway handles it. The company, which produced a delightful Twelfth Night this past winter, has brought the same approach (and some of the same actors) to Shrew, with Christian Amato once again in the Director’s seat.
The story is a familiar one (made doubly famous by Cole Porter’s outstanding musical, Kiss Me Kate), in which a nobleman (in this case a noblewoman, Signora Baptista—played here by Brianna Hurley, strongly evoking Joan Crawford in a high shouldered dress and a preference to chase her problems away with a cocktail), who is trying to marry off her violent and cantankerous daughter Katherina (Bridget Dunigan) so that she might find a suitable dowry (and husband) for her sweet and beautiful daughter Bianca (Bekah Shade). Suitors abound for Bianca, but alas not Katharina, until Petruchio (a suave, strong Alex Nicholson) comes along. Petruchio is a mercenary lover and is confident he alone can cash in on Katharina’s dowry (for her mother is offering half her estate) more easily than any man. So he sets out to do so, with what are now recognized as basic brainwashing techniques: sleep deprivation, starvation, and illogical contradiction (when she notes the sun is shining, he insists it is the moon; and when the tailor comes with a beautifully fashioned dress which she adores, he berates the tailor and sends him away with the garment). In short order, Kate, as she has come to be known, is psychically beaten into submission and Petruchio has won her over.
While the counterpoint between Petruchio’s often harsh dominance of Kate and the levity of the rest of the play is often used to create tension, Amato keeps the entire production light, playing their interactions for laughs. The production is vaudevillian, with outsized acting and outrageous pirate-esque costumes (Brianna Hurley) of shiny pantaloons and puffy sleeves, reinforcing the farce. That, coupled with ensemble acting that is greater than the sum of its parts, with very clear, easy to understand diction and pacing, is what makes the production so much fun. Dramaturge Jonathan Bethea (who also plays Bianca’s suitor Gremio) has abbreviated the text significantly, yet unnoticeably, bringing the run time to a mere 80 minutes.
By the simplest of measurements this Shrew was an unmitigated success. In Shakespeare’s time as well as ours the gauge of a good comedy is a laughing audience, and this production of The Taming of the Shrew provides more than its share. It opens with an ensemble-performed song and ends with one as well, along with an Elizabethan-inspired dance, a gesture that reminds us not only of the play’s origins, but of its purpose: to provide a theater full of people with an entertaining departure from our daily lives.
The Taming of the Shrew. Through July 12 at The Players Theatre (115 Macdougal Street at Minetta Lane). www.shakespeareoffbroadway.com