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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
The Taming of The Shrew
The Lantern makes the best of its comparatively weensy performance space in a corner of the theater, somehow fitting in an attractive piazza surrounded by the frontage of a house with useable and decorative doors, windows, balcony and terrace. Not a foot is wasted, and it's a marvel that so much chicanery can transpire in such a small space. And with the assured and well-defined comic action, not a second of performance time is wasted either. Music drifts in and out, conspiring along with everyone else. There's something singular about dancing a Tango.
In Padua, stern Baptista (Nathan Foley) has decreed that no one will marry his daughter, the fair Bianca, until his older daughter, the difficult Katherine (referred to as Katarina or Kate) is married off. Bianca's prospective suitors welcome newcomer Petruchio with open arms, for he has his eye on Katherine's dowry. Half the play is the knockabout story of Petruchio and Kate. The other half is an antic scramble, as suitors commence their open season on Bianca with convoluted approaches, identity switches, and disguises.
The play opens with an "induction" in which the players perform a comedy for a drunken braggart for their own amusement, setting a framework that places Kate's rough treatment in a context that tempers its effects. In Shakespeare's play the framing device is incomplete, as the man does not reappear. Lantern, however, after having him stagger in at the start, brings him back around intermission and again at the end, where a little twist is introduced.
Some older sources contend that in Taming Kate, forced to marry a man who humiliates her and whom she does not love, is brought in line, compelled to change her ways, and submit. Period. Most scholars, however, among them Harold Bloom, argue that Shakespeare himself tilted his play toward subversion. Artistic Director Charles McMahon skews in this direction and has a lot of fun with it. He edits and skirts around words with body language, and then there's the tango: are they dancing, making love, or fighting?
When Kate speaks her final speech on the "love, fair looks, and true obedience" that wives owe their husbands, it could be taken as total submission, but then again she could be subtly saying that in this marriage she will be ruled by him… just as he will be ruled by her. This comedy would be a tragedy for many in a contemporary audience, were she totally capitulating.
Still, interpretation depends on the viewer's point of departure. The text has long served as a corrective to wives. Certainly, still today in local homes, religions, and world cultures with strict patriarchal belief systems, the wife is expected to knuckle under to her lord and master in marriage. J. Hernandez, cast against type as brutish Petruchio, is neither big nor imposing, in fact he's kind of silly, accenting his conversation with quirky dance twists each time he walks and turns. Some abusive tactics that Shakespeare gave Petruchio have been de-fanged, but the point is this slender man could subdue a woman, just like breaking a horse, because he has the full weight of traditional social mores behind him. These are heavy underpinnings for a comedy of light intrigues, humor, and romantic passion.
Kate, played by Joanna Liao, isn't very nice. She beats her sister and is generally brazen. Later, when she pauses and considers Petruchio and her options, she chooses to capitulate, and she becomes "meek" with assertive enthusiasm. But in spite of herself she has learned how to conduct herself with civility. And while Petruchio tames her, he grows up a bit himself as she tames him.
The competition for Bianca provides the other side of this superlative entertainment. David Bardeen amuses as old man Gremio who'd give anything for the coquette. Bradley K. Wrenn as Tranio and later as a wife keeps everyone in stitches. Ahren Potratz plays Bianca's favorite, the real Lucentio, with breathless romantic excess. And Matt Tallman's Hortensio is a riot, in or out of disguise. On the other side of the story, Dave Johnson as Petruchio's servant Grumio is completely irresistible. The ensemble work is seamless. Each performer has a principal role and one or more ensemble roles, and all contribute to the fun. There's just one niggling thing: K.O. DelMarcelle's Bianca's non-stop signature gesture of fingering the end of her braid, which gets very old very fast. However, her agile choreography for the production delights.
Among McMahon's skills is an ability to achieve with actors an exceptionally close pairing of language with dramatic movement, including slapstick, physical gags, earnestness, or whatever is called for. The resulting precise yet apparently freewheeling idiosyncratic comic action is a trademark of Lantern's Shakespeare comedies. The rapt audience, drawn in by this frolic, loved it.
On entering St. Stephen's Theater I wondered if my comment from 2005, "Nobody does Shakespeare comedy better than Lantern Theater Company" would still hold up. I have not changed my mind.