Who knew that the "battle of love, sex and wit" could be a slapstick circus?
Live Theatre Workshop's latest production, an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, transforms the original's medieval Italian town of Padua into a surrealistic circus setting. Like the witty Arizona Repertory Theatre production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona set in a '70s disco, the show's change of venue gives a fair trial for difficult material.
For all its comedy, this circus has a tinge of decadence, from the Edith Piaf background songs to flashes of German expressionism by the whip-wielding ringmaster.
Baptista, the ringmaster (Brian Weese), must contend with his bustier-attired daughters, elder Katherine (Dana Armstrong) and petite Bianca (Nell Summers). He declares that tough-gal knife-thrower Katherine must be wed before his favorite, the trapeze-swinging Bianca, can even consider a suitor.
There are suitors a-plenty for Bianca: doddering Gremio, opportunistic Hortensio, pseudo-scholar Lucentio, and his reverse- roled servant, Tranio. So when Petruchio (Stephen Frankenfield) shows up willing to tame the wild shrew, Katherine, with the yoke of marriage, everybody's happy. Well, almost everybody.
While abridged, the LTW production remains generally true to the Bard's poetry and intent. That creates the show's one weakness: In Elizabethan England, uppity women who didn't know their place were easy to spot--they were any females who spoke up at all. Shakespeare's audiences easily recognized the innate shrewishness of Katherine from the first scene when she sasses her pa. For today's post-modernist, pro-feminist audiences, however, Katherine does not seem out of line at all. Even with knives strapped to her thighs, she seems more self-expressive than dangerous, a standard-issue strong female character.
Katherine's psychological transformation from self-esteem to selfless submission, played with a certain willingness by Armstrong, is difficult to embrace. Our sense of diversity acceptance means today's theater-goers may have trouble understanding why she should change. Worse, Petruchio's deprogramming techniques--starvation, humiliation and sleep depravation--are disavowed for military prisoners, so they're even more incongruous for his new bride, especially in the name of love. And while some may embrace Katherine's closing Stepford Wives tribute to serving hubby (hey, it's a free country), how she got there remains problematic.
That said, there's a lot to love about this production.
Director Sybille Bruun deftly manages to imbue the limited LTW stage space with an incredible amount of kinetic energy. There's confrontation, slapstick, horsey-back rides, even a bit of judo. Using every inch of the intimate in-the-round stage, her actors circle each other like caged cats, leap towards exits with utter abandon and even test the limits of the vertical space.
Reese gives a delightful rubber-faced performance as Baptista, eye-rolling and cheek-sucking as if this were Cabaret. Though Bianca is the dramatic catalyst for the play, her actual role is limited. Summers gives her bratty shrew-in-training a cartoonish vacuity.
Armstrong gives us a solid adult Katherine, transitioning smoothly from slightly smug to simply subservient. Though we may question the character's choices, there is no question about Armstrong's performance.
Gremio, the play's commedia dell'arte rich old fool, is realized marvelously by local scriptwriting guru Howard Allen. Allen's Gremio is a nervous, mincing-voiced circus strongman--his makeup includes rosy cheeks and protruding tufts of chest and back(!) hair. His is the strongest performance among the minor characters. After Gremio is outbid in his pathetic quest for Bianca, Allen does double-duty as Lucentio's father in the last acts.
The most compelling performance was Stephen Frankenfield's self-possessed Petruchio. Frankenfield was convincing as a man perfectly capable of deliberately breaking Katherine's will, despite being dressed as a hobo clown in tux and spats. His assured physical command of the stage led directly to his character's growing command over Katherine.
Petruchio's motives are a key question in the play, since his lines explain his methods, but never his mind. Does he love her or no? Here, Frankenfield's relationship with Armstrong had a touch of magic. Literally, Petruchio, as a circus clown, performs magic tricks for Katherine. Their wooing also includes a knife fight, which both characters seem to appreciate more than vanilla romance.
Matt Walley nearly steals the show as Petruchio's servant, Grumio. Also a hobo clown, Grumio's poor, threadbare, patched tweed make him a distorted mirror of his master. Walley and Frankenfield's absurd antics and sight gags nicely recalled the hobos of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Fencing with his bamboo cane, carrying either Petruchio or Katherine on his back, or taking a full-body pratfall, Walley gave a heartfelt, physically demanding performance.
The Taming of the Shrew is not perfect. Opening night had the usual share of minor dialogue gaffs, all covered well and likely not to be repeated. Armstrong's rounded tones and rapid delivery made the Bard's rich word-play sometimes difficult to interpret. Frankenfield's intensity leaves him almost always playing on the verge of overload.
These are minor quibbles, however. LTW's production has much to recommend it, including solid performances, excellent staging and Bruun's highly inventive interpretation of a 400-year-old work.