Taming of the Shrew at MPC

MPC tames the shrew

By Philip Pearce

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew still gets a lot of exposure. Its explosive comedy seems to lend itself to a dizzying array of creative updates. In a 1960s version by the Salisbury Reps of Rhodesia it was a shoot-‘em-up Western. Ashland recently set the story on the Atlantic City boardwalk salt water taffy stand, complete with intermittent skateboarding. Shakespeare Santa Cruz once came up with the mind-boggling idea that what Petruchio really rescued Katharine from wasn’t bad temper at all. She was just the discontented Minola family wallflower whom he helped to blossom into a beauty. In the closing moments they shared a matching pair of cigarettes like Bette Davis and Paul Henried in Now Voyager. Beat that one for a concept.

shrew4The new MPC version on the Morgan Stock stage sets the story in an oak-paneled New Jersey speakeasy of the early 1930s, operated by a Mafia-connected guy named Baptista Minola with a couple of marriageable daughters, and it’s a pretty good fit. Minola’s bar is topped by a gallery, which provides space for pretty flappers to hold up cards announcing scene shifts and a floor for some spirited Gatsby-era dancing, to the upright piano of Barney Hulse.

Petruchio (Chris Deacon) woos the feisty and delightful Ayanna Blount as Katherine like a confident mobster mussing up his moll, and it works. When the rickety Gremio (Phil Hopfner, all hobble and beard) joins the younger and breezier Hortensio (Roland Shorter) in a contest for the hand of ditsy blonde younger sister Bianca (Amanda Schemmel) it happens in a well staged poker game, with papa Baptista (an excellent James Brady) dealing the cards and collecting the chips. Then there’s the show’s running gag with every mention of the absent gang boss Vincentio (he eventually shows up, played by Mitchell Davis) greeted with that familiar Don Vito Corleone trumpet blast from The Godfather. In yet another mafia touch, Petruchio punctuates his and Katherine’s first-act departure with a playful burst of gunfire that slots smoothly into his energetic, pistol-packing performance.

The show abounds in old-time movie homages—so many, one wonders whether the predominantly young and energetic cast or their youthful preview fans knew exactly what was being sent up. Petruchio, for example, arrives for his wedding dressed in the jodhpurs and pith helmet and squatty walk of Groucho’s Captain Spaulding, the African explorer. And how many, I wonder, knew that the delightfully daffy Lane Edgington in the role of the pudgy flunky Biondello bounces around disguised as Oliver Hardy in an electric blue double breasted suit and derby?

The Italian mob accents were an occasional challenge on preview night. James Brady’s Baptista was right on, but other male gang members tended to come across in a geographically unspecific growl.

If I have any real beef it’s not with the performance at all, but with Will Shakespeare. For all of the verve and energy the cast bring to the opening minutes, the script doesn’t really take off until Katharine and Petruchio start to fight. By then, three different sets of characters have already told us the play’s premise: Minolta won’t let Bianca wed till Kate finds a mate but we understood all that the first time around.

Then too, there’s all that sub-plot with the aristocratic Lucentio switching costumes and identities with his servant Tranio for some obscure reason prior to wooing Katherine’s amenable sister. Don’t get me wrong. I was charmed by the beautiful and bubble-headed Schemmel as Bianca and, by the way, Daniel Lucido played her suitor as a kind of moonstruck Harold Lloyd. As his willing Pisan valet, Mathhew Pavellas even looked and acted enough like Lucido to make the identity switch reasonably convincing. But having all that mistaken identity to untangle before the more interesting main plot can hit the home stretch is pretty tiresome. Or maybe Elizabethan audiences just had longer attention spans.

It’s surprising, actually, that The Shrew has logged in so much modern day mileage, its central theme of wifely submission is such a 20th/21st century anathema. What do you do with that final, beautifully written but ideologically suspect speech about soft submission and putting your wifely hand under your husband’s foot? Lots of productions, one as early as the Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks silent movie, have Katherine smirk and nudge to assure us once the knot is tied she’s going to put her old tiger claws back on. Personally, I prefer what director Gary Bolen has done this time around. Blount’s Kate firmly and eloquently affirms her submission, but as she bends and before she can take his shoe, Petruchio raises her and “Kiss me Kate!” they’re equals. I was less taken with the decision for the newly married couple then to turn around and rob their wedding guests at gunpoint to cover honeymoon expenses, but why quibble… It’s a fast, furious and funny show with plenty of action for younger patrons and a trip down memory lane for the oldsters. It continues weekends through March 30th.

In a brief pre-curtain speech, Gary Bolen gave out the encouraging news that the S.T.A.R. Foundation has awarded a $10,000 matching grant to Monterey Peninsula Community Theatre Company Charitable Trust. Donations made now will effectively double, and can be mailed to MPC Theatre Trust, P.O. Box 761, Monterey, CA 93942, or made online at www.mpctheatreco.com

Photo by Veronica Ripley