The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Taming of the Shrew," which opened Friday, is a fast-paced, rowdy, no-holds-barred version of Shakespeare's delicious comedy. Guest director David Ivers offers up broad and physical action, filled with equally broad humor and shameless contemporary references.
The rough wooing of the hot-headed, outspoken Kate by the strutting, insufferably arrogant Petruchio takes place in a Padua re-imagined as a boardwalk arcade, a true-to-life funhouse where people and places are not always what they seem.
This is Shakespeare, to be sure, even with some cuts and the added contemporary touches that work seamlessly. Petruchio is a rock star. He arrives for his wedding on a Harley-Davidson. Kate and Petruchio share a fetish for tattoos and a taste for some slap and tickle in their foreplay. There is even a three-piece rockabilly band, placed on a balcony above Baptista's refreshment stand, punctuating the action with everything from soulful rock to bouncy Italian pop tunes to vaguely familiar opera fragments. (Evan Davidson plays guitar, Michael Caruso is on bass and David Burns McClure plays drums.)
But "The Taming of the Shrew" also owes a debt to the forms of Italian commedia dell'arte — its broad action, stock characters and choreographed ensemble work — and that's here as well.
Kate (Nell Geisslinger) does not suffer fools gladly and she usually wins her match. When words don't do it, a well-placed cuff or an accurately thrown object usually ends the discussion. If Geisslinger's performance at first seems a bit over the top, it makes more sense when we get to know her younger sister, Bianca (Royer Bockus). Bianca, of the endless legs, the "bootylicious" short shorts and the cute pout, is obviously daddy's favorite and the focus of every other man's courtship. Kate's shrewish behavior is understandable, a belligerent, self-protective "What am I? Chopped liver?" response to the world around her.
It is also obvious that when Kate sizes up the lanky, swaggering Petruchio (Ted Deasy), she sees a worthy rival. She notes the appreciation in his eye as he matches her double entendre wordplay, phrase for phrase. She recognizes that he is playing her game. She also sees the vulnerability lying below the brash surface. When she becomes willing to play with him as an equal partner, rather than trying to best him at it, there is a sexy complicity between them. As Kate and Petruchio, Geisslinger and Deasy are a well-matched pair.
In this production, Ivers presents Kate's infamous final speech as a wry commentary on accepted female submission. At Bianca's wedding feast, Lucentio, Hortensio and Petruchio wager on the "obedience" of their new wives to come when called. Bianca and Hortensio's wife refuse to appear. When Petruchio summons Kate and she obeys, it is a demonstration of their mutual trust. The intimacy between Kate and Petruchio is a deft contrast to the contempt and disrespect shown by Bianca to her new husband, Lucentio, and the Widow to Hortensio.
Director Ivers also has delicious fun with the rest of his ensemble cast. John Tufts plays Tranio, the servant of the Bianca-smitten suitor Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr). Tranio changes places with Lucentio so Lucentio can pretend to be a tutor and woo Bianca without her father's supervision. Dressed in loud red pants, sockless loafers and sporting a Long Island lockjaw accent, Tufts' Tranio is a snooty, patronizing rich guy, so narcissistic that he can't quite remember Bianca's name. (Binaca? Beyoncé? Whatever.) You simply can't take your eyes off Tufts. He steals the stage in his every scene.
Tasso Feldman is a charming Grumio, Petruchio's roadie with an attitude. David Kelly plays Gremio, an aging suitor for Bianca, as fussy and smug. Jeremy Peter Johnson, as an equally smitten Hortensio, does a sidesplitting bit as a disguised music teacher, a country western singer with an outrageous wig and a sparkling Stetson.
Playing the straight man in all this chaos is Robert Vincent Frank as the canny Baptista, willing to sell off his beloved daughters to the highest bidder, the custom of the time.
Scenic designer Jo Winiarski had a lot of fun creating the fantasy boardwalk arcade with a backdrop of a roller coaster and Ferris wheel, a roaring "tunnel of love" entrance and a video screen "postcard," "Welcome to Padua," that also flashes images to punctuate the action onstage.
Ivers says he fashioned this "Shrew" as a love story, not a political statement. At the play's end, of the three couples, it is clear that Kate and Petruchio have a better chance at a happy marriage than the other two.
In a world filled with disguises, being oneself may be the best disguise of all.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.