Monday, July 15, 2013

The Taming of the Shrew—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

"Thereby Hangs a Tale”


This comedy by Shakespeare is actually part of the Portland Shakespeare Project and is performed at Artist Rep’s space at SW Alder St. & 16th Ave.  It is directed by Michael Mendelson, a member of their company and Artistic Director of the group.  It plays in repertory with a stage reading of The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher and directed by Michael Nehring through August 4th.  For more information, go to their site at www.portlandshakes.org

This story is familiar turf in Shakespearean comedies, as it employs his much-used device of double/triple identities and guises to mask true feelings/motives of individuals.  And this tale is rampant with them.  It all involves two daughters, Kate (Maureen Porter) and Bianca (Foss Curtis), of Baptista (Gary Powell), a wealthy merchant.  Bianca, the “pretty” one, has suitors abounding, including Lucentio (Peter Platt), Gremio (David Heath) and Hortensio (Sam Dinkowitz).  But Baptista is firm that she will not be wed until the eldest, Kate the cursed, the Shrew, is mated.

So Hortensio entreats his best buddy, Petruchio (James Farmer), a brazen, bravado of manhood to woo and win the aforementioned Kate.  He does so by matching his boldness and wit to hers and thereby conquers her heart.  But he feels he must bend her will to his and, through some elaborate ruses, manages this as well.  Meanwhile, the youngest daughter’s suitors are busy plying their skills to enticing Bianca to be their bride.  And, oh yes, this is all a play within a play, which confuses things even more with assumed identities.  Believe me, you have to actually see it to sort it all out.

I have seen a number of stage and film production of this show and even been in one myself.  Overall, this is the best productions I’ve seen.  Others have had individual scenes, which I’ve liked better, but the overall concept and presentation of this production is superior, as far as I’m concerned, for a couple of reasons.  First, the cast is uniformly first-rate, not a sour note in the acting.  Second, it is presented simply, in modern dress and with minimal sets and props, so that the audience is not overwhelmed by pomp and circumstance, which could clutter an already confusing story.

And third, and most important, is it is presented in “Conversational” Shakespeare, a method in which his words are approached as if it were a foreign language, thus having to make it conversational in presentation, in order that it is understood by today’s modern audiences.  This is not a history lesson.  Yes, the language is poetic and rhythmic, but if you don’t know what they’re talking about, it doesn’t work.  And you don’t have to change the words to succeed at this.  Period.

The wooing scene between the main lovers is priceless.  And Farmer has all the necessary dash and flair to make his Petruchio a standard.  Porter is his equal as Kate.  She matches his antics at every turn.  My personal favorites, though, were Dinkowitz as Hortensio.  His every gesture, whimper and hound-dog looks were in perfect harmony with one of the Bard’s clowns.  Grant Turner as Tranio, Lucentio’s servant, has the look of a young Don Johnson and his comic timing and flimsy bravado are in sync with this complicated character.  And Nathan Dunkin as Sly, the “audience” for this play, underplays this role beautifully.  All the right touches in all the right places.

But credit must ultimately be given to the master of this madcap marvel, Mr. Mendelson, the director.  He certainly understands Shakespeare and pulls ever nuance out of this script and his actors, wherever it may be hiding.  And his set, designed by John Ellingson, is easily manipulated and flexible for the many settings.

The only thing that doesn’t work, in my opinion, is the final speech.  Although well-delivered by Porter, the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” (Monty Python) aside really doesn’t cut it.  Women’s groups and others have justifiably been outraged with the subservient tone of the speech, bowing to the “superior” male.  Unfortunately those were the times in which the Bard was writing, as women weren’t even allowed to perform on the stage, and men had to play the female roles.

But, one presentation I witnessed had both the lead characters as mild individuals, but had to put on the mantle of the outrageous because that was what was expected of them within the circumstances.  So the final speech of Kate’s becomes an “enacted” piece and, thus, we know that she is just “playing the role” of the shrew, tamed.  Anyway, that worked.

I recommend this show.  And I’m sure the “sequel” will be equally worthwhile to watch.  It does involve some adult gestures but they are pretty tame.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.