A Daring Vision of a Classic

--Irene Backalenick

             “Taming of the Shrew” burst upon the scene this past week-end, undeterred by the downpour inundating Fairfield County (and, in this instance, New Canaan). The Summer Theatre of New Canaan was offering its own dizzy, offbeat version of the Shakespearean comedy, and viewers were much too involved in the antics of Petruchio, Kate and all to be concerned with a few raindrops. Besides, they were nicely protected by STNC’s open-air tent.
            This “Taming of the Shrew” may not be letter-perfect, but it offers a jolt, a fresh way of viewing the familiar, a daring version of a classic tale. Not that Shakespeare cannot survive in traditional form, but the works of our great English-language playwright lends itself to reinterpretation. This time around director Allegra Libonati combines a contemporary world with commedia dell’arte, farce, physical shtick. Think the Three Stooges, the Age of Aquarius, punk rock, street theater, TV sit-com.
            The story, if one needs to be reminded, deals with a sharp-tongued abrasive girl, one who responds angrily to the restrictive mores of her time (presumably 16th century Padua). It is Katherina, known as Kate the Shrew. She is avoided by the eligible men, who turn their attention to her younger sister, “the fair Bianca,” hoping for a match. But Baptista, the girls’ father, will not allow Bianca to be married until he has disposed of Katherina. Into that setting comes Petruchio of Verona, who hopes to “wed it wealthily in Padua.” Petruchio is not put off by Katherina’s reputation and seeks only her wealth—or so he says. But when the two meet and clash, they reveal it is a match made in heaven.
            For starters, the costumes (courtesy of Arthur Oliver) set the tone. Nothing makes sense, but every outfit shocks. Hortensio (one suitor) is clad in an aqua-colored suit and scarf, others are in the eclectic attires of flower children, while Lucentio is impeccable in white. Kate and Petruchio themselves are punk rockers, with black leather and chains.
            As the story moves on, several players, unfortunately, exaggerate each speech with endless, pointless gestures. In wonderful contrast, Petruchio strides on stage with not a wasted motion. Michael Chmiel, in that role, takes command of the stage, of the story, of the audience. No wonder Kate succumbs. Any one would. Chmiel, let it be noted here, is one of the best Petruchios we have ever seen.
            But Katherine Malak as Kate is every bit his match. When the two play out a scene—with Petruchio tossing Kate about and slamming her to the ground—the production is dynamite. Such moments give their final reconciliation a special poignancy. Others in the cast succeed in varying degrees, with Dorothy Abrahams, Faith Bryck, Terence MacSweeny, Michael Nathanson, Mace Perlman, and Omen Slade particularly worthy of mention.
            The question arises, in these modern feminist times, whether the playwright actually meant the theme of wifely obedience to be taken seriously. Or was it a tongue-in-cheek comment? In any event, “Taming of the Shrew”—whatever its politics--is a highly entertaining Shakespearean piece, cleverly interpreted in this production.
             

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