The poster for the West End Shakespeare Ensemble's production of The Taming of the Shrew has the familiar visage of Shakespeare saying, "This is the funniest production of this play I've ever seen!" Well, not quite, but director Russell Treyz drew laughs seemingly from thin air. The play was full of fine and funny bits of business, all of which the script supports.
Instead of simply jettisoning the Christopher Sly prologue, it was transfigured into a "director" giving instructions to the cast for a final tech rehearsal, thereby explaining unfinished costumes and substitute props being used. There was plenty of terrific slapstick, some of which was spectacularly successful, and off-stage effects added to the merriment. All was not perfect in Padua, however, and some unevenness in the acting was problematic.
If everyone were up to the level of Jean Tafler's Katherina, then all would be right with the world. Her excellence was not apparent at the start, when she seemed rather perfunctory in her scenes with Bianca (Amy Carickhoff). But she (and the play) exploded into excellence when she first meets Petruchio. The scene is wildly comic, cringingly violent, and stunningly sexy - Katherina is alive. The play was 20 degrees hotter whenever she and Tom Huston, a strong and virile Petruchio, were on stage together, and each was at their best when addressing the other.
Carickhoff's Bianca was a wide-eyed innocent, and she held the stage with authority while being very, very sweet and very, very funny. Servants also were strong comic presences, with Biondello (Michael Checchi), Grumio (Michael Burnet) and Tranio (Kevin O'Donnell) especially effective. In fact, Tranio presented a conundrum, being more Lucentio-like than Lucentio (Marc O'Donnell). This worked for the play only because Tranio pretended to be Lucentio most of the time, but it makes Bianca's preference puzzling. Others in the cast did the right things at the right times and participated wholeheartedly in the fun, but unfortunately they didn't have the same resonance as the more powerful players.
The set (Bob Phillips) was a raised platform with painted backdrop curtains depicting the Italian settings, and the costumes (Rachel Attridge) were a melange of period suggestions and modern touches. The lighting (Jim Szekely) was unobtrusive but occasionally would narrow to highlight a speaker, to limited effect. A mock radio station was playing love songs before curtain and during intermission, including "I Am Woman" and "Tainted Love" (sound uncredited). Point received.
But it is the transformation of Kate, courtesy Tafler's talent and Treyz's direction, that was the wonderment of this production. Kate has not only learned how to play the game (and to her it clearly is a game); she enjoys it and has become a master of it. It is not a giving in, there's no residual anger, and she hasn't suppressed or subverted anything in her personality. It's an awakening, and she has blossomed - as a woman, as a human being. People spend years in therapy learning how to do this.
Also with Donald Warfield, Gary Mink, Carl Wallnau, Michael Fitzpatrick, John Daggett.
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Copyright 2001 David Mackler