Play: “The Taming of the Shrew”
Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Venue: Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park near the Art Museum
Dates: Nightly except Tuesday through June 19
Tickets: Free admission
Story: Love is knocking at the door of Bianca, younger daughter of wealthy Paduan land-owner Baptista Minola. She is being wooed by the elderly Gremio as well as youthful Lucentio, a student who arrives in town and immediately is smitten with her. Baptista, though, tells everyone that he will not allow Bianca to marry until her older sister, Katharina, is wed. That’s a problem, because “Kate” has a reputation as a shrew, a woman of strong opinions who scares off suitors.
Lucentio decides to masquerade as a Latin tutor for Bianca, while one of his two servants, Tranio, assumes Lucentio’s name and role. When Petruchio, a charismatic young man from Verona, comes to Padua in search of fame and fortune, he takes up Baptista on his command that Katherina must be married first, hoping to gain her dowry. Petruchio goes about courting Kate, using reverse psychology to wear down her fiery spirit, while also helping his friend Hortensio pursue Bianca. They disguise Hortensio as another tutor, a music teacher, and both channel their energies to win the hearts of their respective women.
Highlights: Since it first was performed in the late 16th century, “The Taming of the Shrew” has been one Shakespeare’s most problematic works. It’s hard to present the idea of a woman’s subjugation to a man in straightforward style without inviting sharp criticism from audiences, even four centuries ago. The Bard works around this to an extent by setting up an “Induction” preamble, in which a drunken sop named Christopher Sly stumbles upon a lord’s mansion. The lord tells his staff to hire an acting troupe that will convince Sly that he himself is a wealthy aristocrat as they enact the tale of the “Shrew.”
For Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ current presentation, director Sean Graney wisely sets the story in 1950s America, the “Mad Men” era when society expected wives to stay at home and take care of their husband’s castle while the menfolk went out into the workplace. With that backdrop, and with a breezy, broad approach to The Bard’s most controversial comedy, Graney succeeds in delivering a palatable and playable version of the work.
Other Info: Sound designer Robin Weatherall gets everyone in the mood with some recorded ‘50s tunes featuring the American ‘king,’ Elvis Presley, warbling away. Scott Neale’s scenic design is a flavorful, multi-hued concoction that sets the action in a suburban backyard, complete with galvanized swimming pool, a patio deck and barbecue accoutrements, with a tacky mobile trailer off to one side and a bona fide Cadillac DeVille driven onto the carport.
John Wylie’s lighting accentuates the colorful canvas, while Alison Siple’s costumes deck out the Bard’s characters in flamboyant period togs. Ellen Isom’s sprightly choreography dresses up proceedings when the occasion warrants, and Weatherall’s original compositions add to the desired effect.
That sets the mood suitably for this lightweight, frothy presentation that Graney delivers in a zippy two hours, excluding intermission. Equally importantly, Annie Worden’s spirited interpretation of Katherina, coupled with Paul Hurley’s engaging portrayal of Petruchio, stamp this presentation as a tongue-in-cheek look at the battle of the sexes. A more stolid Petruchio or a more docile Kate, as can often be the case, will only underscore the script’s inherent problems. Worden and Hurley, however, work hard to convey more agreeable sensibilities.
St. Louis stalwarts Steve Isom, Gary Glasgow and Aaron Orion Baker deliver excellent comic turns. Isom looks like an oversized popsicle in some sort of jumpsuit concocted by Siple as the baron Baptista, Glasgow drags an omnipresent oxygen tank around as the lusty old Gremio and Baker has a grand time shouting out all manner of silliness as the bombastic servant Biondello.
Megan Storti is fine as the earnest and frustrated Bianca, while Michael James Reed and Will Shaw contribute well to the proceedings as the energetic and scheming suitors Hortensio and Lucentio, respectively. David Graham Jones is consistently entertaining as the quick-witted servant Tranio and Karl Gregory does well as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio. Kurt Ehrmann is engaging as the intoxicated Sly as well as Lucentio’s father Vincentio and a wandering pedant who briefly masquerades as Vincentio, while Justin Leibrecht, Laura Sexauer and Peter Winfrey capably fill out the ensemble.
Arrive early if you can and catch the spirited antics of the Green Show, featuring a sprightly, 20-minute presentation called “Shrew in a Few,” a delightful adaptation by Festival education director Christopher Limber featuring the talents of Elena Kepner, Khnemu Menu-Ra, Michael Perkins, Antonio Rodriguez and Jessica Shoemaker and ably helmed by Festival tour manager Anna Blair. Add the abilities of strolling performers “Juggling” Jeff Koziatek and Josh Routh, the Sword-Swallowing Clown, and you have the stuff that dreams are made of.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.