“Kiss Me, Kate” at Hartford Stage

By Brooks Appelbaum

The first rule of directing is to trust your material, and in his direction of Cole Porter’s 1948 masterpiece, Kiss Me, Kate, Darko Tresnjak, Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, clearly does not. As a result, he has accomplished what would seem nearly impossible: he has eclipsed the sophistication, urbanity, and wit of Porter’s songs with unnecessary spectacle. Additionally, comedy depends on the characters taking their situations seriously: the more human their dilemmas, the more we can enjoy laughing, not just at them, but with them. Tresnjak also misses this mark, making choices that render his characters, and their wishes and longings, cartoonish and one-dimensional.

Those who have never seen another production of Kiss Me, Kate might, on the evidence of what they see at Hartford Stage, think that the show itself is ridiculous. On the contrary, this play-within-a-play bases its backstage drama on one of theater’s most famously warring couples, Lunt and Fontanne, and dares to infuse an onstage performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with songs that illustrate their real-life conflicts. With its mirroring worlds, Kiss Me, Kate is a tour-de-force of musical theater.

The musical’s plot (Bella and Samuel Spewack wrote the book) is painted in broadly comic strokes to match The Taming of the Shrew. Set in the late 1940’s, a troupe of actors is trying out their Shrew in Baltimore before it moves on to New York. Off-stage, the divorced Fred and Lilli (who onstage play Petruchio and Kate) still harbor fond feelings for one another while at the same time they are able to needle, mock, and hurt each other as only former lovers can. Meanwhile, Lois and Bill (Bianca and her suitor Lucentio) have their own problems: Bill is a compulsive gambler, and Lois, though in love with Bill, cannot resist the attentions of her many admirers.

In a move that sets the tone of the entire show, Tresnjak reduces Megan Sikora’s performance, as Lois, to a Betty Boop cartoon whose voice has the effect of squeaking chalk. Sikora is a fine dancer, but she is given no opportunity to act, and this blots out the poignancy of her early ballad, “Why Can’t You Behave?” Clearly, Porter meant us to take Lois seriously enough to give her this lovely song; Tresnjak passes up this chance to make her human.

Were Lois and Bill the only characters sacrificed to farcical choices, the production could, perhaps, have retained some of Porter’s urbanity and charm. Tresnjak has cast his two main actors beautifully: Anastasia Barzee, as Lilli/Kate and Mike McGowan, as Fred/Petruchio, have marvelous, nuanced voices and terrific acting instincts in their dual roles. However, Tresnjak seems to think that nearly every word needs to be pantomimed, underlined, or choreographed, and so much visual spectacle surrounds every scene and song that these actors are nearly lost amidst what can only be termed special effects.  Certainly Shakespeare included his share of comic relief for the groundlings, but even his lightest fare was not constantly over the top.

Most thoroughly compromised are Porter’s brilliant songs within The Taming of the Shrew. In Katherine’s “I Hate Men,” a hilariously anachronistic reference to television’s Lassie is mimed with begging paws and, as if that weren’t enough for us to get the joke, with Katherine’s lifting her leg to urinate on an imaginary fire hydrant. Next, we are subjected to watching Katherine in labor, legs growing wider, wider, wider until an imaginary baby emerges and Barzee must ad-lib “It’s a boy!” In the midst of these crude enactments, Katherine’s very real fury and Porter’s very real genius are lost.

Similarly illustrated, though less crudely, is Petruchio’s set piece, “Where is the Life that Late I Led.” As the now-married Petruchio fondly remembers each past dalliance, a chorus member’s face pops into view from a window in the buildings flanking the stage. One joy of the song lies in imagining our own versions of his conquests. Having them appear as women we recognize not only robs us of this pleasure but also distracts us from McGowan’s fabulously athletic and heartfelt performance.

Spectacle does the greatest damage to Petruchio’s gorgeously wistful “Were Thine That Special Face,” sung to Katherine to woo her. Of course, if Petruchio merely wanted to woo Kate, he would sing “Thine is that special face.” The fact that he sings in the mode of “if only” (“Were Thine”) lets us know that Fred, in the guise of Petruchio, is addressing Lilli, whose love, at this point in the play, he thinks he has lost for good. Rather than trust Porter’s lyrics to weave their own magic, Tresnjak surrounds the song with a light show, complete with the kind of disco-ball effect that belongs to another musical entirely, and certainly to the climax of that musical, not to this early, tenderly rueful moment.

In addition, the entire production is too loud, visually and vocally. These strong singers don’t need body microphones, and if they wear them, it’s up to the director, working with sound designer Jonathan Deans, to balance what we hear. The costumes, by Fabio Toblini, are beautifully rendered, but the palette resembles the overly saturated days of Technicolor.

So, what is there to enjoy? In addition to the strong performances of Barzee and McGowan, Peggy Hickey’s choreography is expert. And Joel Blum and Brendan Averett are spot-on as The First Man and The Second Man, who deliver the delicious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with stylish understatement.

It’s remarkable what two men in suits, on a bare, simply lit stage, singing a Cole Porter song, can do.

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