Laughter and love reign in SSC’s gorgeous ‘Taming of the Shrew’
Shakespeare Santa Cruz launches its 2013 season with a crowd-pleasing, often uproarious production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The company has a newly rebuilt and reconfigured performance space to show off in the Sinsheimer/Stanley Festival Glen, with cleaner aisles and better sightlines for the audience (although to the lay viewer, nothing appears to be radically altered), and they inaugurate it in style with this visually gorgeous production.
Lively incidental music and B. Modern’s lavish costumes evoke the Italian Renaissance, while the action flows gracefully across Michael Ganio’s formidable, multi-tiered set, and all around the Glen. It’s a splendid setting for one of Shakespeare’s brightest, yet most misunderstood romantic comedies. Director Edward Morgan wisely keeps the emphasis on laughter (literally; every character has his own distinctive chuckle), so that the lusty romantic coupling at the play’s core sneaks up on the audience by stealth, then explodes in all its heartfelt complexity.
The show also sneaks up on the audience, with characters wandering onstage and loping down the aisles, chatting with the crowd, while theatre-goers are still finding their seats. But things get going with the arrival of fussbudgety Hortensio (the hilarious William Elsman; he was Andrew Aguecheek in last season’s “Twelfth Night”) and elderly Gremio (an irascibly funny Kit Wilder), two wealthy suitors to pretty young Bianca (Victoria Nassif). But her doting father, Baptista (the wonderful V Craig Heidenreich, who always manages to coax four or five insinuating syllables out of his daughter’s name), has decreed that Bianca cannot wed until her elder sister, Katherine (Gretchen Hall) finds a husband.
Not so easy, since Katherine, underappreciated by a father who clearly prefers her sister, and too smart to suffer fools gladly or curb her sarcasm, is ill-tempered most of the time. The dynamic Hall shows us every atom of her frustration—as well as the scathing wit with which she consoles herself. But Bianca’s suitors collude with Petruchio (Fred Arsenault, suitably robust and witty), a rough-hewn, outspoken knight from Verona, to woo Katherine. In the market for a wealthy wife, and undaunted by the others’ warnings, Petruchio’s interest is piqued by the challenge of Katherine on first sight (he calls her Kate), and he pursues her in earnest, if by unorthodox means.
Meanwhile, Lucentio (fresh-faced Elvin McRae), a wealthy young scholar from Pisa who also falls in love with Bianca, switches places with his servant, Tranio (a droll Nick Ortega), and finagles a job as Bianca’s tutor. In the supporting cast, Conan McCarty is wistfully funny as Grumio, Petruchio’s longtime servant, but the real scene-stealer is Andrew P. Quick as Lucentio’s other servant, Biondello; it’s a relatively small part, text-wise, that Quick turns into a gleeful comic feast of pratfalls, double-takes, and juggling.
I wonder if the bracketing device in which Christopher Sly, a rustic drunkard, passes out at a tavern and may or may not dream the entire play, is a bit more confusing than it’s worth, here. But Morgan does achieve a kind of symmetry by casting Arsenault and Hall as Sly and the wife who comes to collect him at play’s end.
The play has been considered problematic since the feminist ’70s, chiefly by those who interpret the words “taming” and “shrew” too literally. Kate is profoundly unhappy in her home life and unable to escape it by any other means than marriage. Petruchio is an eccentric drawn to an unconventional spirit equal to his own. He’s not trying to break her spirit in gaming with her, nor demanding Kate’s blind obedience to a capricious master; rather, he is asking her to trust him in maneuvering around social conventions to create an extraordinary life together.
In an effective production like this one, Kate’s final speech resonates because we understand the complicity between the two of them—to rise up together above the mundane clothing/wealth/propriety-obsessed conventions of their society and live on their own terms. Their partnership is not a “taming,” it’s a liberation—for both of them. We get that here when Arsenault’s jaunty Petruchio reacts to Kate’s speech not with a victor’s smugness, but with astonished awe. His Kate has outwitted them all, and we see in their final embrace the birth of a genuine love match that warms the audience all the way home.
The SSC production of “The Taming of the Shrew” runs through Sept. 1 at the Sinsheimer/Stanley Festival Glen, UC Santa Cruz, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. For tickets, call 459-2159, or visit shakespearesantacruz.org. Photo: SSC