It’s just like Shakespeare wrote it...with the addition of beer, trucker hats, and country music. This is DMTheatrics’ American Shakespeare Factory and Horse Trade Theater Group’s version of The Taming of the Shrew , and tame it certainly isn’t. This production, currently playing at The Red Room, is actually quite brilliant in concept: a modernized Shrew with a redneck twist. The text sounds oddly perfect in a southern drawl, and with the exception of a few mis-directions, I think that the overall production is strong enough to attract those in search of a new take on an old classic. The entire theater-going experience of this Shrew is decidedly opposed to most people’s conception of Shakespeare. Forget the high brow, folks, this show is about hitting below the belt. I will avoid spoiling the surprise of entering the theater, but suffice it to say that the tone and place are already established by the time we come upon a character watching a Nascar race projected on a screen. The southern accents at first seemed odd, but I quickly realized that they suit the meter quite well. Southern accents are arguably the most musical of our country, and therefore they adeptly support the greater range inflection best suited for Shakespeare.
The actors make good sense of the words, and their actions provide a gentle guide through the story. Occasionally I could not make sense of the words when the musical underscoring, sometimes country, sometimes vintage love themes, was too loud. Indeed, sometimes I found the actors themselves were too loud, flattening out the vocal inflection and muddling together, but this did not happen too often.
The acting is generally strong. Brianna Tyson’s Katharina is wonderfully dynamic as she nails the biting comebacks Shakespeare grants the character while balancing the character’s gentler moments. Likewise, Swiderski’s Petruchio is devilishly charismatic while also dumbly brilliant. Another standout is Kymberly Tuttle’s Tranio, whose comic timing is as wonderful as the gigantic overcoat she uses to disguise herself to Baptista. There is also something very lovable about Joshua Schwartz’s Hortensio, one of the suitors seeking the love of Bianca, also well played by Lindsey Carter.
The only acting I took issue with is that of Edgar Eguia, whose characters seem to be out of place. He is playing for laughs, which he was surely directed to do, but it just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the production. I was taken out of the action as he hammed it up, and I long to see him embrace the almost self-conscious ease of his peers. He is best when matched up with Tuttle when her Tranio attempts to communicate with his Mr. Pedant.
Now would probably be a good time for me to acknowledge that I was curious to see how the final scene would be handled. The speech in which Katharina says “I am ashamed that women are so simple” is one that has plagued feminist scholars for years. Is Shakespeare sexist? Is Katharina tamed? Or is it all an inside joke between Katharina and Petruchio? I’ve seen it played both ways with great success.
This production is particularly good at emphasizing Katharina’s spunk, and her verbal jousting matches with Petruchio are sharp and witty. Yet this final scene is played devoid of irony, and with a sincerity that led me to believe that Katharina had indeed been tamed. In scenes before this it is obvious that she has been wooed, but to go from such fire to such complacency surprised me because I did not see an arc. When we realize that Katharina loves Petruchio, we are also meant to enjoy the power they both have. To play this scene in all honesty does not make sense in this context, for Katharina is not her husband’s servant. She has just redirected her fiery spirit to be more amenable to his comfort, as this production shows. This is the only scene that seems like a misstep.
The design concept of this production is very interesting. If you are going to see this show, be prepared to sit on low bleachers! Again, without ruining the surprise, the audience does not begin on these bleachers, but then moves into the space. Frank Cwiklik, director and designer, has utilized The Red Room theater space to create a versatile set. The most impressive thing about the staging is the ways in which the production chooses to move in and out of the proscenium. The length of the stage allows the actors to be upstage and become perfectly enclosed in a picture-frame proscenium, while being downstage breaks this construct, moving the action into a less constricted space much closer to the audience. This movement brilliantly mirrors greater aspects of the show itself, which breaks out of Shakespeare’s words through repetition and minor additions while then returning from whence it came. This continual referencing of the framing devices, both literal and physical, lends the show its postmodern flair.
After seeing tonight’s production, I’m left slightly curious about the unevenness between the first and second acts. The first act is high energy and never lags, while the second act seems longer and more drawn out. I have a feeling that this energy might have been particular to the performance I attended, and I reference it here to say that I believe that an act two like their act one would be quite a sight to see. So put down your chicken wings (they might give you some at the show) if you want to see a theater group taking risks and doing truly interesting work, and head on over to The Taming of the Shrew .