KPBS AIRDATE: July 19, 1991
The title alone is enough to raise the hackles — and temperatures — of modern women. But in many ways, “The Taming of the Shrew” is too farcical to be seen as seriously anti-feminist. It’s lusty, witty and well-crafted, and it’s currently being done as a delightful romp by Octad-One Productions.
Each summer, Octad-One presents Shakespeare-by-the-Lake: outdoors, adjacent to Theatre East, formerly known as East County Performing Arts Center. It’s an ideal, idyllic setting. Makes you think of Shakespearean times. No sets, few props, colorful costumes, and a lovely little lake as backdrop. No lighting design is needed: the plays are done in the late afternoon — six to seven-thirty, in this case, so it’s still bright outside. The only shortcoming is the position of the sun, which, if you’re facing stage left or center, is directly in front of you.
But, other than that, the setting is superb, the condensed versions of the Bard’s brilliance work just fine, and it’s an excellent intro. to Shakespeare for the whole family. You can even bring snacks and picnic fare.
Now, on with the show. Director Don Pugh, one of Octad’s leading actors, has chosen to include what’s called the Induction to the play, which opens with the drunken boor, Christopher Sly, who becomes the butt of a joke, recurrent comic relief, and the main audience for the whole plot comprising a play within a play.
That starts things off in a funny, bawdy way, and Pugh weaves that thread through the whole fabric of the production. He relies heavily on physical comedy and sexual innuendo, and that’s a good fit for Shakespeare’s ribald wordplay.
What’s been left out is a few of the convolutions, disguises and mistaken identities. The streamlining loses some language and sub-plots, but the main story-line is intact.
James Gary Byrd plays a brash, booming Petruchio, who intends to ensure a happy married life by taming his bride with the methods used to train hawks: starvation, sleeplessness and humiliation.
As Kate, Susan Stratton is no willing victim. She’s a crotch-kicking hellion at first, and somehow haughty and unbowed even in her “tamed” state. Her metamorphosis is palpable, but somehow not, we feel, complete. Petruchio should hold onto his hat — and his pants.
Byrd and Stratton, along with Sean McDade as Lucentio, are the only actors who really project enough volume for Shakespeare and the outdoor venue. But thankfully, no one is trying to “emote Elizabethan.” The lines are clearly and plainly spoken, and the laughs aren’t missed by the audience. For some of the best visual gags, special kudos to Nikky Nghiem (NEE-hime), an incredibly agile, athletic Grumio with terrific timing.
All the comic timing works; the whole show does. It’s a fresh re-framing of “Taming,” but so’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” and that, by the way, is a perfect follow-up to this piece — at Starlight Bowl, through Sunday.
In the meantime, go enjoy Shakespeare al fresco. If you want to see a shrew “semi-tamed,” be sure to wear your shades.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.