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Play Out the Play 

The Taming of the Shrew

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
The Taming of the Shrew is like The Merchant of Venice -- built on the pattern of what we would now call a Minority Character coming around to the worldview of a Christian, male-dominated, and incidentally Italian, town. Shrew is also about Kate growing up, and learning to serve, the way Merchant is a fable about Shylock learning forgiveness. Innocent? No. The play has dated, maybe for good, on the level of its morals. "Fashions change more quickly than manners," wrote Shaw, "manners more quickly than morals, morals more quickly than passions, and, in general, the conscious, reasonable, intellectual life more quickly than the instinctive, willful, affectionate one."

So you might say there are a couple of levels below the moral one on which the play hasn't dated, and director Lillian Garrett-Groag works them for whatever they're worth in her production at the California Shakespeare Festival. With some crude strokes of slapstick, and as strong a cast as I've seen at Cal Shakes in two years, Garrett-Groag turns Shrew into an irreverent and wacky celebration of Shakespeare at full comic blare.

The show, and you might say the whole Cal Shakes season, starts with an act of happy destruction. The long, sponge-painted castle rampart that dominated every set last year has been torn down, and the tawny Berkeley Hills are visible again behind the Bruns Amphitheater. Instead of the rampart, four two-story shacks on wheels pose as Padua town houses. Their windows are broken. Something smashes, and Kate runs onstage in a dress, combat boots, and a single sleeve of armor. She's the scourge of Padua, tomboyish and wild. Some funny Latin-jazz pop starts playing, and her sister, Bianca, strolls across with a parasol, followed by her suitors. Both Mhari Sandoval, as Kate, and Stacy Ross, as Bianca, play up their punk-chick-vs.-coquette roles, and have, in the process, a huge amount of fun.

The actors are in full command of their lines, although they all overplay, and the show careers forward like no other Cal Shakes performance I've seen. If Triney Sandoval nearly shouts his lines as Petruchio -- "Have I not in my time heard lions roar? ... Have I not heard great ordnance in the field? ... And do you tell me of a woman's tongue, / That gives not half so great a blow," etc. -- Patrick Kerr outdoes him as Petruchio's obnoxious, intrusive manservant. I like Kerr because he doesn't try to sound Elizabethan; he applies his brash American voice comically but intelligently to Shakespeare's poetry, and the dissonance is perfect in Shrew. Last season he played a couple of good clowns, but here it's as though someone's uncorked him.

The show has a cartoonish period feel, with 16th-century townspeople running around in white Mediterranean pants and dresses, stained red from crushing grapes. Modern touches, like Bianca's red heels and fishnet, Kate's combat boots, and a Couturier or Tailor who dresses like Coco Chanel, are careful and deliberate. So are the gags. Whenever a character mentions Pisa, a creaking noise comes over the sound system and everyone onstage leans left. Only one character -- James Carpenter's masterly, wintry Vincentio -- finds this weird. Petruchio and Kate wage their first argument not just in Shakespearean verse but also with a rifle and cannon. When Petruchio says, "Women are made to bear, and so are you," Katherine glowers, and we hear campy, distant thunder.

If it all sounds like too much, it is. Not all the actors can pull off such broad farce. Amanda Duarte's Biondello seems awkwardly overplayed; Sharon Lockwood is too goofy as Gremio (but excellent as the Couturier), and Colman Domingo overdoes it sometimes as Lucentio. But most of the cast maintains the subtlety of Shakespeare's language; in fact their pace and energy give it new, clear, accessible life. Instead of cringing from Petruchio's ugliest lines, Triney Sandoval has the guts to shout them at the Berkeley Hills, and let Mhari -- his offstage wife -- shout back. None of this playfulness transcends Shakespeare's script, because Kate, in the end, can't avoid saying, "Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband," but it does suggest that there's more to Shrew than pre-suffragette morality.

If this show is any evidence of what Jonathan Moscone's tenure as Cal Shakes' new artistic director will be like, I'm glad he's here. After last season, local summer Shakespeare needed a kick in the butt. The new set and some of the casting is all Moscone can be held directly responsible for, in this production -- I think -- but the signs of life overall are encouraging. (Moscone is the ex-mayor's son, by the way.) Suddenly Orinda has a Shakespeare company that succeeds for the same reason younger, leaner companies in San Francisco and Berkeley succeed: because it's not afraid to fail.


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