Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Shakespeare in Frontierville

A rip-roaring production of The Taming of The Shrew opened this weekend at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street.  Theatre for a New Audience brings us back to the old west to experience a rollicking, jolly, remarkably American production of Shakespeare’s controversial comedy.
(c) Theatre for a New Audience

Director Arin Arbus reins in the 16th century European setting to the 19th century western frontier.  The scene is familiar, warm brown wood flooring and walls, beams going every which way on doors, shutters, a balcony.  The two-storied set by by Donyale Werle is classical in style, yet like “Frontiersville” in nature.  Anita Yavich’s costumes wrap natural hues around the company, appearing at once timeless and settled in the wild west.  As the audience enters a plinking piano played throughout by Jonathan Mastro is comfortingly reminiscent of saloon scenes from movie westerns.  Michael Friedman’s music combines traditional western “cowboy” music with Italian opera of the period, the latter in a particularly hilarious sequence when disguised Hortensio attempts to teach Bianca to sing. 

Lighting by Marcus Doshi is atmospheric, with footlights surrounding the stage, candles hanging from above. “Effects”of the sun and moon are as they would have been created by a 19th century company.  Doug Elkins’ choreography works with the geography and the characters.

Director Arbus has chosen to maintain the blatant theatricality of the often-omitted Christopher Sly sub-plot, making Sly the town drunk tossed out of the saloon, where he can be wittily played upon by the local “lord” and a traveling theatrical troupe.  It’s a fine conceit, with Sly occasionally interrupting the proceedings, reminding us this is a play within a play we’re watching, and that everyone is someone other than who they profess to be.

Said play within the play takes place in 16th Century Padua, where Baptista (Robert Langdon Lloyd) has two daughters: The elder is called Kate the Curst, while the younger, Bianca, is wooed by gentlemen old and young.  Baptista will not allow his younger daughter to be courted until his elder is wed, so Bianca’s suitors — Hortensio (a preening, stuttering, Saxon Palmer), Gremio (John Christopher Jones plays the traditional pantaloon with sympathy and humor), and the newly arrived Lucentio (Denis Butkus) — need someone to marry Kate.  Enter Petruchio, who has come to wive it wealthily in Padua while doing a great deal of slapstick. 
Maggie Siff as Kate and Andy Grotelueschen as Petruchio (C) 2012 Henry Grossman

Lucentio and his servant Tranio exchange clothing (and pseudo-identities) onstage, each revealing long-johns.  John Keating as the devious servant Tranio, however, is taller than Lucentio, so he spends the play strutting, posing, and conspiring in pants that are too short for him.  Kathryn Saffell is an amusing and intelligent Bianca, one moment a pouting victim, the next a flirt, and finally a veritable shrew herself.  The happily ubiquitous John Pankow is excellent as Grumio, conspiratorial servant to Petruchio and his partner in slapstick.

In this production, the titular Kate was clearly a tomboy just a few years ago.  She is now rangy and tough and no-nonsense.  It is perfectly clear only fools or liars come to court, for they really only want her soft and feminine little sister.  This Kate is an unrepresented, disrespected woman that weaker men wish to repress.  She’s funny, she’s sharp, she’s a little scary:  I half expected her to draw a derringer — or maybe a bullwhip.  She is personified perfectly by Maggie Siff.  In most of Shakespeare’s plays, the witty, wordsmithing woman is silenced after her marriage.  Not so Kate.  Once she is “tamed,” she has a long speech instructing women how to deal with their men, and thereby how to live in the world.  It’s not a swell world, but it’s the only one they’ve got.  The men in Kate’s world are dainty, where she is dauntless.  It takes a wild fellow named Petruchio to choose a highly imaginative method of wooing in order to tame.  This bold and bawdy man is played rather like a rich rancher’s son, but not a bad guy — a Cartwright, perhaps.  He’ll work his land, but he’s used to having money and wants it.  Andy Grotelueschen is a charming, tough yet thoughtful Petruchio, whose bravado can be seen to fade in face of his Kate.  After tempests are tossed about, quiet negotiations between this pair become surprisingly sweet love scenes you would not have imagined could appear in this play.
Andy Grotelueschen and Maggie Siff in TFANA's "The Taming of the Shrew"  (c) 2012 Gerry Goodstein

Theatre For A New Audience has brought together a fine, highly skilled company of players. There was really only one actor who seemed apart from the rest, not for lack of enthusiasm.

Shakespeare is quite at home in the American west, having toured through its mining towns, from tents to shanties to young cities, in dance halls, saloons and bona fide theatres — or the open air.  Ms. Arbus has set this production just where The Taming of the Shrew belongs.  The play runs at the Duke until April 21.  If you’re in town, go.  If you’re not, come visit.  (www.tfana.org)

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