Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Taming of the Shrew: Hello, Seattle

This Saturday, Shakespeare girl and I took a day trip up to Seattle. Needless to say, a few weeks prior to the trip, I googled all over the internet for a Shakespeare production in Seattle that weekend. But I came up with... nothing. I admitted my failure to Shakespeare girl, and she told me, "Oh, no, there's a production of Taming of the Shrew up there that night." She had seen it on facebook. Facebook > Google?

Anyway, I'm very pleased I was able to go to the quiet - that's the name of the theatre company, not a description of the play - production of The Taming of the Shrew last weekend (incidentally, the Shakespeare quote "Nay, let them go, a couple of quiet ones" is from The Taming of the Shrew - III, II, 242). Review below!

First off, if I had been paying attention as I entered the theatre, I would have known that Director Josh Hornbeck's vision for the play focused on the gender issues in the play, specifically the ill-treatment of women. I could have guessed this because of the lovely (not really) posters adorning the entrance to the theatre.

"Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere." Well, tobacco was introduced to Europe in the late 1500's, shortly before 'Taming' was written....

And if that one's not bad enough...


I could also have guessed the theme because to emphasize it- and to capitalize on 'Mad Men' - the play is re-set in an ad agency in 1960, at the supposed height of American male chauvinism (the fact is that I don’t really have to guess about the director’s vision, because he explained it himself in an after-the-show panel discussion - more about that later).

Throughout the evening, I was impressed with the actors that flit through this 1960's/Shakespearean world - they are quite good for a small, low-budget production. It's true that like everything else, the acting is colored by the director's vision (chauvinism, chauvinism, chauvinism), and the two lead characters, Petruchio (the man who marries and ‘tames the shrew’) and Katherina (the ‘shrew’), are most affected by this. David Pickett plays Petruchio as a smart, abusive, tough-guy, and he keeps you interested- and somewhat horrified - the whole time. And I've never seen Katherina (Zandi Carlson) played so gently and meekly. In the first act, I thought perhaps Carlson was just not that expressive, but I found she was quite emotional - and even touching - in later parts of the story, such as when she's begging for food (I wanted to slip her a note about domestic abuse hotlines). Clearly, this is a production strategy - playing down Katherine's anger management issues to emphasize Petruchio's.

Poor Katherine!

The supporting cast was also strong and energetic. Geoff Ramler steals many scenes as Grumio - plum role, and he handles it competently. Also good were Hortensio (Geb Brown) and Mrs. Curtis (played by Alysha Curry). I'm not generally a fan of changing the gender of characters, but it worked here.
Grumio and Mrs. Curtis

There was too much undirected movement (characters walking slowly hither and thither on the stage for unknown reasons) but generally the scenes were well-paced and had an overall liveliness which reflects well on the entire cast and production crew. One nice touch is that The Widow (played by Lissa Bak) appeared on stage long before she is mentioned in the play. Another is the original music (by Matt and Roxy Hornbeck and Ryan Miyake), which is quite good. The show was advertised as 'kid friendly' (if you are thinking of bringing children though, I'll say that it's more like a PG than a G show).

The re-setting of the play caused some problems. Without any dialogue changes (although there was some judicious cutting), unanswered questions lingered in the air, for example: is all of this happening at an ad agency run by Baptista? If so, is it a home business? Is it an Italian home business?
However, putting it in the 1960's did make it more immediate, and connected it with 1960's art and culture, when Andy Warhol tossed Edie Sedgwick aside, and James Bond films captured the popular imagination (I found myself thinking about how much *less* misogynistic Shakespeare is than the movie-makers of the 1960's). The re-setting affected even the costume designs (by Kaitlyn Kaufman) in an anti-woman way - the men wore sharp, snappy suits while the women had to make do in short sixties-style sheath dresses and heels - not particularly flattering, and clearly not designed for extreme athletic activities such as, say, walking or sitting on a chair.

Upon reflection, I am not convinced about the wisdom of having a panel discussion after the show (disclaimer: because of time constraints, I didn't stay for much of it, so I can't comment on it in its entirety). Having the director discuss his vision for the play seems slightly...odd. I mean, aren't we supposed to get that by, you know, watching the play? Also, Shakespeare is so *different* than panel discussions on gender that it might be hard to get audiences that are interested in both (I noticed other people slipping out as well). And I was somewhat surprised to see an LGBT/Straight group listed on their panel discussion group rotation, since those seem like pretty unrelated issues to The Taming of the Shrew. In any case, I thought that quiet would get better results by a. starting the play earlier so it wouldn't be so late when the discussion started, or b. turning the lights on, selling snacks, and having a more chill discussion/reception time, possibly involving a panel. Or not. Personally, right after I finish a play, I don't feel like being talked AT.

The danger in productions with a very clear theme/social impact idea is that the play ceases to explore what the playwright says and instead focuses on the producers' own artistic idea. This is a danger that this production does not completely avoid. But overall, you could do a lot worse for an entertaining evening in Seattle than to check out this engaging, affordable production of The Taming of the Shrew.

This play runs again February 24th and 25th at 8pm at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center. Tickets are $7 pre-paid or $10 at the door. More info here.

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