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Theater review: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

programcover3.pngWe’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.

Responses to "Theater review: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’"

Darnell says:

This performance of Taming of the Shrew will bring people to Shakespeare. It is engaging and provides a chance for young and old alike to see the Bard at his best. When I saw this performance, a ten-year-old in front of me watched the entire play. The language didn’t get in the way of her enjoyment.

Shakespeare is colorful, as this set and these costumes are. The tension between Petruchio and Kate is just right. Every Shakespeare play has a sword fight and the one in this performance is comedic, which is fine since this is a comedy. Thankfully, someone finally got the sound system right. (Whomever was responsible for sound in Othello, should never be allowed to handle a microphone ever again.) Most importantly, Shakespeare is timeless, yet of a time. This show hits it just right.

Outdoor Shakespeare Festivals are an American summer tradition. Having watched these on the East coast, the Midwest and the West coast and I have seen them all make the mistake of playing to the snobs instead of the public. It is nice to see that the Fresno troupe has seen fit to stage a show the way Shakespeare would have done it, for the literate and the not yet literate. Save the peculiar settings, such as Dogberry as a Keystone cop, Romeo as a gangster, or Shylock in a three-piece suit for the collegiate stage. Use the outdoor venue for the play, not fanciful adaptations where the ten-year-olds are bored and leave their parents after the first act. I hope Fresno sees fit to put on more shows like this one.

Most of us come to the Bard through his comedies. I hope the managers of the festival are encouraging every child in Fresno schools to see this play so we can have a generation that doesn’t fear Shakespeare.

Max says:

To Darnell- What planet do you come from? That play (if you can call it that) was nothing but c—p, a bunch of people yelling out stupidly, the costumes could of been put together by elementary school children learning to sew, and not much effort put on the scenery. I hope to God that all the people who’ve I’ve heard from with a negative opinion of that ‘shrew’ thing, let it be known that such a thing should not be done again. I for one, will.

Darnell says:

To Max – Clearly you are confused. That American tradition of summer Shakespeare in a park is not to be confused with stuffy indoor theater. I have seen Shakespeare in both settings and I don’t confuse them. If I had paid $50 for a comfy seat in an air conditioned hall, I might have been disappointed by the costumes. But for summer outdoor faire, they were ideal; light and airy. The scenery was bare, just as William would have done it. OK, he would have actually had a sword fight, but that was the obligatory car chase of his time and had to be in all his plays to satisfy the masses. The sword fight in Shrew is always out of place and to be substituted with a pillow fight fit the mood of this presentation. To answer your question, my planet Earth has joy and color, and it has descriptive words rather than scatological references.

Outdoor theater is for big themes, not minutia. The over acting, yelling as you call it, showed the duality of what Petruchio was doing in clear and distinct segments. He is yelling, so he must be acting crazy. It was easy to follow, as it should be in outdoor theater. Yea, I could have done without the bare chests, but it made the point. It was easy to follow the plot, which is sometimes hard with Shakespeare. For beginners, this was great. It was fun. It was meant to be fun. It is only snobs who think that Shakespeare should be gray and grandiose. This presentation showed that you can make Shakespeare fun without resorting to the stupidity of setting his plays in where they don’t belong, like during WWII or as Italian mobsters.

Judge this play by the reaction of the audience. They were more engaged for this play than they were for Othello, or any of last years plays. In fact, both of the nights I attended, I saw more people engaged in the action on stage than I have ever seen at any presentations of Shakespeare, indoor or outdoor. And I have put in my seat time with the Bard in London and Stratford-upon-Avon. Maybe it disappointed a few snobs, but judging from the audience, thank heavens you are in a small group. I hope there are more presentations like this because then more people in Fresno will come to appreciate Shakespeare.

Anthony Taylor says:

I find the occasional absurdly overstated opinion like Max’s to be welcome in my ears. I found this production of “Shrew” to be truly inspired. So when I heard someone had been slamming it on the comment board, I was worried that perhaps my bubble would shatter. Perhaps there were points that I hadn’t thought about and I would take these new arguments and compare them to my own experience, therefore making me realize that I was not as in love with the show as I thought I was.
Luckily, the arguments were ridiculous and presented in a “I hate it so there! Hurumph!” manner and my opinion of the show remains intact.
From the simple costumes and set that never got in the way of the acting to the use of Final Fantasy music in the flute and accordian duo during the fight scene, I found myself enthralled with just about every performance. This was my first time seeing “Shrew” and my first time at Woodward Shakes, and I will be back again.