Monday, April 03, 2006

Taming of the Shrew

“Rip-roaring” and “rootin’ tootin’” are not usually adjectives one hears to describe a Shakespearean production, but that certainly fits the Sacramento Theater Company’s latest production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” under the direction of Peggy Shannon.

This tight, energetic, sprightly paced production is set in the Old West, with lots of boots, cowboy hats, whoops, hollers, and impeccable “Wild West accents.” And actually, therein lies its problem. The combination of rapid fire dialog and broad John Wayne western accents assume that the audience is already well-versed in the story and the dialog.

“It’s fun, but I can’t really understand most of what they say,” I overheard someone laughing at intermission.

It is a shame that so many marvelous lines get lost on those unfamiliar with the text, no matter how much they are enjoying the production as a whole. In spots some may have longed for supertitles. I saw children in the opening night audience. They were obviously enjoying the on-stage hijinks, but I really wondered how much “Shakespeare” they were getting.

That said, for those already familiar with the story and the dialog, this snappy production is a delight.

There are those who question the political correctness of performing this comedy in this day and age, since it seems so blatantly mysogenistic, the message being that harmony will only occur when wives accept the domination of their husbands. But there are various shades of interpretation that can be presented without compromising either the original script--or the sensibilities of feminists. Director Shannon has achieved this delicate balance.

At the helm of this production are two of STC’s most familiar faces. Saffron Henke is the feisty Katherina is a gun-toting tomboy who will take no guff from anyone. Matt K. Miller is her fortune-hunting suitor, Petruchio, who vows to tame this hellcat. The two actors have always had great on stage chemistry together and it is at its best here.

Philip Charles Sneed (who also does the pre-show lecture) is Katherina’s domineering father, Baptista, who refuses to allow his youngest daughter, the blonde, flirtatious Bianca (Michele Hillen) to marry until a groom is found for her bad-tempered older sister. Hillen plays the sweet little lady role to the hilt (think of a somewhat less endowed Dolly Parton).

While Petruchio has his hands full with his “Kate,” the young rich Lucentio (Kurt Johnson) finds himself smitten with Bianca. He trades places with his servant, Tranio (Michael Stevenson), and disguises himself as a poor teacher to gain an excuse to be in Bianca’s company, while Tranio, posing as Lucentio attempts to convince Baptista to let him marry his younger daughter. Johnson and Stevenson make a great pair and play off each other beautifully, and Johnson gentle, romantic lover for Bianca.

As Bianca’s older would-be suitors, Mark Standriff as Hortensio and Allen Pontes as Gremio are wonderfully silly. Kyle Hayden as Petruchio’s manservant Grumio is outstanding.

Marion Williams has created the Wild West in the sparest possible manner, using a bare stage with platforms, a couple of swinging barroom doors on the sides of the stage, and hanging interchangeable signs overhead to indicate change in location, setting all against a wide open sky with colorful clouds as one might find in a Montana sunset. It proves that with a good cast, you don’t need a fancy set to put you in the location.

Shannon makes the most use of the entire stage, frequently sending her actors out into the audience to exit out the back of the theater, which adds yet another element to the energy.

Petruchio puts Kate through the tortures of the damned, first being late for the wedding, arriving in a ridiculous outfit, forcing the bride to leave before the wedding feast, depriving her of food or sleep for several days. Ultimately his new bride will admit that the sun is really the moon...or is it the moon which is really the sun. She agrees that an old man is really a beautiful young woman, and she gives a long speech about the need for wives to obey their husband in all things.

However, at the hands of the talented Henke, is Kate really subjugating herself to her husband, or does that sly gleam in her eye indicate that she has just found a better way to keep peace and manipulate her husband? I’m betting on the latter.

For those who intend to see this delightful production, I would suggest you brush up your Shakespeare, if you are unfamiliar with the script, in order to get the most out of the production, but do go to see it. It will be time well spent.