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The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

Directed by Sean Graney

June 1, 2011

It’s Shakespeare in Forest Park, it’s for everyone, and it’s free!  That’s been the premise of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis since its founding in 1997.  Since then, they have put on high-quality, professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays—a new one each season—in an area near Art Hill that is now known as “Shakespeare Glen”.   It’s a wonderful atomosphere–the stage set up at the foot of a hill and plenty of space for picnic blankets and chairs, and a nightly “Green Show” before the main event featuring various forms of live entertainment such as jugglers, musicians, and academic lectures.  Previous productions include Much Ado About Nothing (staged as a Western), Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor and last year’s marvelous Kevin Kline Award-winning Hamlet. This year’s offering, the festival’s eleventh production, is the often controversial but still popular The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Sean Graney of Chicago’s The Hypocrites theatre company and done in a 1950s style that really helps bring the show to life for a contemporary audience.

Everything from the sets by Scott C Neale (especially the amazingly colorful Mid-Century Modern house that’s painted to look like a cartoon) and the costumes by Alison Siple, to the use of 50’s era music by Elvis Presley and others helps to set the atmosphere of this play.  It was also fun how the introduction to the show (called the Induction, and not always used in previous productions) helped to set up the action as well as add to atmosphere. In fact, Kurt Ehrmann, who plays the drunken Christopher Sly, wanders through the audience in character before the play begins, so that when he finally staggers up onto the stage to start the show, he’s already a familiar face.

The premise is that the drunken Sly wanders into the front yard of an upper middle class house, whereupon the occupants decide to convince him he’s a Lord and stage a play for his amusement.  He’s then plunked into an aluminum swimming pool on the side of the stage, where he sits watching the action for the entire first act.

The play he’s presented is the familiar story of of a father, Baptista (Steve Isom) with two daughters–the young, beautiful Bianca (Megan M. Storti) who has many suitors, and her older sister Katherina, known as Kate (Annie Worden), who has a reputation as a “shrew”.  Baptista decides that Bianca can’t marry until Kate does, which prompts Hortensio (Michael James Reed), one of Bianca’s suitors, to enlist his old friend Petruchio (Paul Hurley), newly arrived in town, to pursue Kate.  Since Petruchio came to town to get a rich wife and Kate, the daughter of the wealthy Baptista, qualifies, he decides to take up the challenge.

Petruchio and Kate are the heart of the story, as always, and for the first time, I really thought their story had heart.  Paul Hurley’s Petruchio is less domineering than usually portrayed–full of boasting and bravado at first, but gradually becoming more bewildered by his situation and by Kate herself.  He seems to be at first challenged, then frustrated, and finally fascinated by her, while Annie Worden’s Kate is slouchy, grumpy and surly at first, with a posture and strut that reminds me of a goose,  but she seems to have gained a real confidence at the end.  This isn’t as much a case of one of them trying to beat the other down, as I’ve seen in other productions of this play, as it is more of a mutual challenge and discovery, so that by the last scene when Kate gives her famous speech (full of attitude), it’s as if the two of them are in this together, trying to put one over on everyone else.  It’s a “me and you against the world” kind of approach that I really liked. Theirs is definitely an unconventional relationship, but I actually believe they’re in love in this production, and that’s a good thing.  I also have to say that I love the costuming in the last scene, which also emphasizes how Petruchio and Kate are somehow out-of-step with everyone else.

The other main subplot of Bianca and her suitors, Hortensio, the elderly Gremio (Gary Glasgow) and Lucentio (Will Shaw) is handled in a slapstick-ish manner and is entertaining as well, but not quite as much as the Petruchio/Kate plot.  Storti is fine as Bianca, but she plays up the “pampered princess” angle a bit much at times, although she is excellent in a scene with Kate, as the two argue and fight over a large pink teddy bear.  Shaw is amiable if a bit bland as her main suitor.  Glasgow as Gremio and David Graham Jones as Lucentio’s servant, Tranio, are the standouts in this plot, as is Ehrmann when he joins the action in the second half in a dual role as Lucentio’s father, Vincezio and as the man pretending to be Vincenzio.  This situation allows for some hilarious moments as the staging sets up quick changes for Ehrmann between one character and the other.  It’s a bit dizzying at times, and very, very funny.  Another stand-out in the cast is Karl Gregory as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, who plays the physical comedy very well.

I also would like to make special note of the music in this production, which uses classics from the 50’s and early 60’s to set the mood wonderfully.  I especially enjoyed the use of “Chapel of Love” in the wedding scene, as the entire cast sings and dances along, with Ehrmann as Sly’s reactions from the sidelines a real highlight.  “All Shook Up” works very well as the scene-setter in the beginning, as well.

Overall, this has been one of my favorite productions at SFStL, along with 2007’s Much Ado About Nothing and last year’s Hamlet.  The updating to the 50s/60s era really works to make the story more accessible to a modern audience, and the the direction, performances, costumes, sets and music all helped to make this an extremely enjoyable experience. There is still a week left to see it, and if you’re in St. Louis, I highly recommend checking it out.

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