We’ve heard a lot these past days about a certain storm named Dean hurling through the Caribbean. There’s a powerful phenomenon closer to home, however. Let’s call him Hurricane Jay. He’s a Category 5 in terms of comedic turbulence, and he’s whipping through Woodward Park in the new production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
As Petruchio, the “tamer” of the title, Jay Felix is a blast of such vigorous theatrical energy that he nearly bowls you over. From the moment he bounds on stage — and make no mistake, EVERYONE bounds onto stage in this whiplash-inducing romp — you can sense that you’re in for blustery times ahead. At times shouting his lines like a drill sergeant and at others retreating into a maniacal grin that suggests Johnny Depp on a mind-altering substance, Felix whips between bellowing lunatic and smooth-tongued confidence man. Clad in a shockingly fluorescent vest — when, that is, he’s clad in much of anything at all — he’s like a cross between a pirate and a Cal Trans worker on an acid trip.
If you haven’t yet figured it out, this “Shrew” is not your traditional, staid Shakespearean production, and Felix is not your typical Petruchio. Director Daniel Moore has gone happily high-concept with this memorable second outing of the summer from Woodward Shakespeare Festival. Breathlessly staged and hoarsely presented, the play flies by in a cacophony of laughs, bright colors and silliness.
The look of the show sets the tone. If you took the Circus-Circus casino and crossed it with the last frantic hours of a Wal-Mart Easter-trimmings sale, you’d come close to the production design. The somber Elizabethan-style set for “Othello” has been repainted in gaudy fluorescent colors. Dana Roney’s costumes are slathered in shades of day-glo oranges, greens and blues. Yellow shoes abound. Most of the men wear what look like elastic-waisted diapers.
That’s just a backdrop to the breakneck style of the acting, however. Most of the lines are delivered (and many of them shouted) at top speed. We don’t just run through the plot; we sprint through it. The complications of the story are established in what seems like 35 seconds. Thus we’re introduced to the sweet Bianca (a whimsical Christine Andrews), whose father won’t allow her to marry until he can also find a husband for his other daughter, the shrewish Katherine (an excellent Vanessa Pereda). Shakespeare pulled out the comic stops on this one: hijinks, sight gags, bawdy puns, mistaken identities.
The cast is profoundly pumped up with lots of young talent on display, from Jordan Roberts’ buffoonish Grumio and Elliott Montgomery’s silly Hortensio to James Medeiros’ scampering Biondello.
Time and again, Moore (and his actors) are willing to go to brazen lengths to get the laugh. In the scene in which Petruchio arrives for his wedding with Katherine, he’s supposed to be underdressed. Moore pretty much takes that literally, giving us quite an astonishing amount of skin. After the first ten minutes of the show, when it’s clear that the breakneck pacing is there to stay, you wonder if this company could possibly keep up the energy. And for the most part, they do.
There’s a certain price to be paid for a high-concept production like this, of course. Given the intensity of the opening, it’s very hard for the show to build to anything greater. Moore has to downplay some of the subtleties between Kate and Petruchio. We lose some of the nuance of Shakespeare’s language. In this production, Petruchio becomes so dominant — such a fiery ball of energy — that Kate’s own distinctive “shrewishness” gets a little overwhelmed. By the time we get to Kate’s closing monologue, her words are hard to associate with emotional resonance. But Pereda happily holds her own against Felix’s big-voiced stage presence, and the sparks that fly between them are as funny and as heartfelt as they could be given the circumstances.
And there’s one happy thing above all that you can say about this “Shrew”: It never, ever drags. Audacious and bold, it doesn’t outlive its welcome. It’s daring, fun and perfect for an outdoor summer breeze. Or even a hurricane.