Monday, June 2, 2008

"Delicious" Cast in Taming of the Shrew

Theatre critic Richard Ouzounian (the Toronto Star) gives The Taming of the Shrew 2/4 stars:

"The good news first.

"The return of Evan Buliung to the classics is one of the many things to celebrate about the opening week of the new regime at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"His performance as Petruchio in the production of The Taming of the Shrew that opened Saturday night manages to combine strength, charm, wit and textual clarity with a welcoming dose of swaggering machismo that has been conspicuously absent from the festival in recent years.

"Unfortunately the production he's displaying all these qualities in is – not to put too fine a point on it – a bit of a dog's breakfast.

"The story of how Petruchio 'tames' the shrewish Kate while a series of suitors clamour for her younger sister Bianca's hand is a fairly complex commedia dell'arte-ish tale on its own.

"But director Peter Hinton, in an attempt to tackle some of the problematic issues in this classic battle of the sexes, has flung so many conflicting ideas onto the stage that you don't know where to look.

"How can I tell thee? Let me count the ways.

"The play as written features a framing device in which a lord, stopping with his hunting party at a country inn, decides to toy with a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly and winds up presenting the story of The Taming of the Shrew to bemuse him.

"That's complex enough, but Hinton has decided the lord is actually Queen Elizabeth I and so we have Barbara Fulton, looking like a faded copy of Maggie Smith from Robin Phillips' famous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the Virgin Queen played Hippolyta and Titania.

"Ready for more?

"On the strength of one line in the text ('Why does the world report that Kate does limp?') which most scholars usually accept as a joke inspired by some physical business (a kicked leg, a broken shoe), Hinton has decided that Katherine has an actual physical deformity and has her hobbling across the festival stage as though she were Richard III instead of Katherine I.

"One can just imagine the moment of I-could-have-had-a-V8 recognition when Hinton came up with this ('You see? That's why she's so mean!') but it does absolutely nothing for poor Irene Poole, except slow down the amount of time it takes her to cross the stage.

"Between Queen Elizabeth, Kate's limp and everything else Hinton has loaded on the play, it's no wonder it runs three hours.

"What is there to celebrate? The cast.

"Buliung is a fine Petruchio, capable of genuine anger as well as sudden compassion. And the sexual tension he shares with Poole is real.

"Alas, she's been directed to play most of the show on one note of non-stop surliness, but when her own instincts are allowed to poke through she shows a complexity that's welcome in the role.

"Stephen Ouimette is a delight as Baptista, offering us a sly neurotic rather than the usual benign blusterer. Some of his double takes and unexpected line readings are the funniest parts of the evening.

"Juan Chioran also reminds of his delicious comic flare as the aged Gremio, while Ben Carlson does his best with Tranio, one of the most thankless parts in Shakespare. (He has to keep explaining the plot to everyone else.)

"Adrienne Gould is a distinctive and different Bianca, the real shrew hiding at the play's core, while the dashing Jeff Lillico is a fine mate for her as Lucentio.

"Hinton has also decided that Petruchio's servant, Grumio, should be played as a woman, which makes no sense within the period, but allows Lucy Peacock some opportunities for a relaxed free-wheeling comedy that is highly welcome.

"But in the end, we leave this production without really knowing anything more about The Taming of the Shrew or Elizabethan England.

"While one has to applaud Hinton for bringing some fresh concepts to the table, there are times when having too many ideas is worse than having none at all."

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