Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Taming of the Shrew
Also see Rick's recent review of Morning Sun
In the spirit of Shakespeare's original text, which had an "Induction," a frame involving Christopher Sly, a drunken tailor tricked by a crew of players who stage the story of "taming" an unruly woman. Ultimately bored, he disappears early from Shakespeare's text, leaving the play-within-the-play to run its course. Levy has conceived a more contemporary induction that continues throughout: A pair of giddy bridal party celebrants pop up from the audience and are convinced to stay and watch the show from chairs at stage right and left. Colleen Dougherty's Kristina Sly is a romantic bride-to-be who finds Petruchio "cute," while more serious Amy (Maggie Lou Rader) is put off by his misogyny. They slip in and out of the action, often injecting silly modern pop tunes and some differing opinions about what's going on.
Of course, they're on the sidelines of the familiar Taming of the Shrew narrative of a flock of men in heated pursuit of sweet Bianca (Angelique Archer) who are stymied by a parental insistence that her elder sister, the fearsome Katherine (Sara Mackie), must be married first. This production's initial scenes are a bewildering melee of competitors for Bianca's affections: ebullient Lucentio (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) who trades places with his servant Tranio (Geoffrey Warren Barnes); dimwitted Hortensio (Justin McCombs); and elderly Gremio (Billy Chace). But once Petruchio is recruited to woo Katherine, the focus sharpens.
Guest actor Josh Innerst plays Petruchio with zest and clarity, every one of his witty challenges, retorts and extravagant entrances landing squarely and evoking laughter. Mackie's Katherine is in a state of fury from the get-go, resentful of her beautiful, fawning sister who gets all the attention. She presents a handful for Petruchio, but with the assistance of his beleaguered servant Grumio (Jennifer Joplin), Katherine is worn down.
Or is she? In this production, Mackie's Katherine learns to play along with Petruchio's outrageous treatment, to dish some of it right back at him until a kind of truce is reached. It's an unusual evolution of their relationship, differing from Katherine's usual submission, demonstrating that she's been "tamed." Instead, in their final encounter, a kind of détente has been reached, and they both seem pleased with the outcome.
There's plenty of flat-out humor and slapstick along the way. Each of Bianca's suitors is an able comedian: Benjamin is a bundle of physical energy; Barnes a motormouthed second-guesser; McCombs a clueless dupe; and Chace a grouchy old guy constantly intimidated by Katherine. Mollie Murk, as the trickster Biondello, is also in the mix, always munching on some snack as she speed-talks through descriptions of offstage action.
The show is performed on Samantha Reno's gorgeous orange- and amber-toned set, an Italian villa in Padua festooned with hanging vines and flowers warmly lit by designers Chris Holloway and Rob Stimmel. A trickling fountain at the center of the thrust stage provides water for multiple comic moments, and two curved staircases descend to the stage level, used to hilarious effect by Chace as the slow-moving, cane-thumping Gremio.
Kristina Sneshkoff's costumes for the 14-member cast also reflect this color palette, especially resonating with Sara Mackie's brilliant red hair, a banner of Katherine's feisty nature. Everyone is appareled in authentic Renaissance garb with rich colors and fabrics. Of particular note is the riotous, ridiculous get-up Petruchio wears for his wedding to Katherine. It's already a crazy quilt of fabrics and decorations, which he enhances by swiping the veil from the bride-to-be who's been watching the action.
To get the audience lubricated before the show starts, a pair of actors roll a liquor cart onstage and sell shots for $10 a throw (cash only). They're back at intermission, serving another round to a line of eager audience members. Such enhancement is probably not required, given the level of comic energy from start to finish in this effervescent production, but theatergoers can be assured of an entertaining two-and-a-half hours whether or not they are inebriated.
The Taming of the Shrew runs through March 25, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm Street, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2273.