Shakespearean comedy, at its best, is a counterpoint of serious themes and slapstick, in which the trials and tribulations of the characters build to an obligatory –if sometimes forced — happy ending.
That combination is in full view during Act Out! Acting School’s production of one of the Bard’s earliest forays into comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew,” which tells the story of how Petruchio gains control of the intractable Katherine (aka “Katharina the curst”), marrying her against her will, thus enabling the lovely – and much sought-after — Bianca to wed.
The inherent misogyny of the tale – which was remade last century as the musical “Kiss Me, Kate” – is set into high relief by a conceit that Director John Stillwaggon and Assistant Director Sara Minisquero employ, casting a bearded, stocky man (Romo Hallahan) as the combative Katherine (son of the wealthy widow Baptista, portrayed by Brittany Bishop – a widower in Shakespeare’s original conception) and the impishly charming Minisquero herself as Petruchio.
This is just a beginning of the gender reversals in the production, set amid the lush greenery of the Narrows Botanical Garden – a moveable feast for the eyes and ears as the audience travels with the actors to different scenes within the oasis.
Keeping the theme going, Michael Artzer plays a bashful Bianca (the widow’s other son), and one of her suitors, the ardent Lucentio, is cast as a female, played by Olga Privman, though his other two suitors, Hortensio, played by Chris Lee, and Gremio, played by Robert Aloi, are male.
And Stillwaggon himself puts the icing on the cake, donning female garb as Tranio, Lucentio’s servant – in a black pageboy wig, purple dress and oversized sunglasses. He clearly relishes a role that he recreates with a distinct Brooklyn accent, slipping occasional improvisational contemporary commentary into the text that Shakespeare, while he didn’t write it, would certainly have appreciated.
A key to enjoying the play is immersing oneself in the rhythm of the language; the actors, at their best, facilitate this, to help even those unfamiliar with the plays enter the world that they create. The effort on the part of the audience is worthwhile. Shakespeare is not stuffy and his plays are still intensely germane, centuries after they were penned. They also can stand up to contemporary riffs, the best of which increase their relevance to audiences.
Thus, in the program, Stillwaggon explains the thought processes that informed the production: “Marriage equality, equal-pay activism, and Caitlyn Jenner have recently raised certain eternal questions: What is a man? What is a woman? What (if any) are the roles and expectations of a man or a woman in a society/workplace/relationship? The genders of the lead characters have been inverted…to address changing gender roles in our society and relationships, and to take us past Petruchio’s question of ‘How to tame a mate?’ and to ask, perhaps more importantly: ‘Should a mate be tamed?’”
I can’t promise that the question is answered, but Act Out!’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and can be seen for one more weekend, Saturday, July 25 and Sunday, July 26 at 7 p.m. at the Narrows Botanical Garden, 7200 Shore Road. There is a $10 suggested donation for admission, with proceeds benefiting the garden.