Folger Theatre The Taming of the ShrewBy Xandra Weaver • May 8th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Washington DC
Through June 10th
2:30 with one intermission
$30-$65 (+ fees)
Reviewed May 6th, 2012
The Taming of the Shrew is a loaded canon of a play; shoot it in the right direction, and you can bring down the house. The Wild West saloon themed iteration currently playing at DC’s Folger Theater was an absolute powder keg, and it blew the audience away with its energetic, fast-paced hilarity. The staging was brilliant and vibrant, and the characters on it were a sight to behold. The director, Aaron Posner, took the theme of gender in a world revolving around money and punched it up a notch, cross-casting two main characters memorably and successfully. The story begins with a mother (instead of a father) forbidding anyone in town to court the younger, more desirable sister Bianca (played by Sarah Mollo-Christenson) before a husband can be found for her quarrelsome daughter, Kate (played by Kate Eastwood Norris). The change to make a matriarchal Baptista (played by Sarah Marshall) shows a caring side of the character, as well as a willingness to get whatever needs to be done accomplished.
The other gender switch in this production is a manservant named Tranio who becomes a female aid (played by Holly Twyford). This seemingly small change adds pathos as she served her master lovingly, and created hilarity when she is ordered to take his place and dress as a man. But instead of just playing the character for laughs, Twyford elevated the character to be genuinely convincing as a man, swagger, posturing and all, which gave the moments of femininity all the more punch.
Then there was Petruchio (played by Cody Nickell), who swaggered through the saloon doors with every ounce of manliness, pride and self-confidence intact. A full beard and low slung belt with prominently placed pistol only completed the vision of an unspoiled male specimen of the Old West. When he proclaimed he could tame the wild, pants wearing, gun-toting Kate, everyone believed it. And without even laying a finger on her, their first encounter was an unmistakable win for Petruchio, as he proclaims “upon Sunday is the wedding-day!”
Kate held her own, pulling out all the big guns in her arsenal and attempting to take him apart and break him like she had broken all the other men. Her frustration and surprise when none of this works was a very genuine moment, and made her a sympathetic, real person. She’s a fierce woman who finds out her “lances are but straws” and the pathos builds as she struggles to find a new source of power.
For all his bluster, as the second act reached a crescendo, Petruchio showed his strength a different way. Everything he takes away from Kate, everything he demands she do now that she is his, he gives back in a stronger and gentler way. The clothing he demanded she not wear is replaced quietly with a beautiful dress with a side slung skirt so as to allow her to wear shining boots and a pair of pants underneath. Her mad reaching to control the world around her through force becomes a game that two can play to rule the rest. Kate’s famous (or infamous) final speech completely takes Petruchio off guard, as Norris passionately confesses it as a love story, where she has been made whole by his love, and decides to cast aside bickering in exchange for a life she never could have imagined, one of peace. Thus the end of the play becomes a triumph, as it should be, and a happy agreement for all involved, as comedies should end.
The cast as a whole supported and upheld the energy and excitement needed to bring the audience a truly happy ending. The suitors vying for the younger daughters affections were hilarious and pompous, the servants were conniving and boisterous. Petruchio’s servant Grumio (played by Danny Scheie) was a flaming fool who fancied himself a mannered fop, taking any opportunity to steal the scene and run off with the audience. Very few moments felt slow, most of those regrettably were with the youngest daughter, Bianca, whose unfocused portrayal seemed to halt the momentum of the action in most cases.
The production took the trope of the quintessential Wild West and made it more real. A folk singer, Cliff Eberhardt, was brought in to write and perform original songs for the part of the Blind Balladeer. The temptation would be to use this new character as a narrator, but this production utilized him better as a bridge with the audience to enhance the emotion of the action. The songs made the Old West seem more real, a place where real stories became legend in song because they were honest and worthy of being sung about in the first place.
Ultimately, that was the success of the production. They took the story, made it funnier, more entertaining, more creative, and completely more real and believable.
If it is not clear from the set in front of you (assuming you are reading this as you wait eagerly for our play to begin, we are situating our production of The Taming of the Shrew loosely in some kind of a saloon in some version of the Old West, circa 1880. Of course it is not exactly that, it is our own imagined world, but it is closer to that than anything else.
Any scant resemblance to the HBO series Deadwood is anything but accidental. It was while watching that remarkable show that it occurred to me to set our Shrew in a world of roughly the same hue and energy. It turns out, I soon discovered, that this is not a terribly original idea, as it has been done a number of times, in many variations and permutations. In fact, in New York right now another Shrew is also set in some variation of the Old West.
Why is this? What makes the Old West a helpful or logical setting for this complex little comedy? Hopefully in a few hours you’ll be able to answer that for your friends, family, and neighbors as you e-mail them and dell them to turn tail and haul on down to the Folger. But here, perhaps, is a bit of ammo for the conversation…
The mythological “Old West” was a place where power and money ruled. And law was still…flexible. There was a sense of possibility and limitless potential, hence, it attracted an interested kind of individual. We can imagine it as an exciting, dynamic, invigorating environment. Rules were continually being rewritten. That was certainly true of women’s roles as well (which is why we have made some gender-bending choices that I think will make the whole story even more complex). It is a place that seems to catch our collective imaginations. The Wild West of gunslingers, shootouts, stampeded, and cowboys is deep in our national psyche.
I find a lot of that wonderful, mythic, rough-and-tumble spirit in this play. Therefore connecting the two worlds seems like helpful and logical choice. Also, it just seemed like a really, really fun and provocative place to set this charged, fascinating and somewhat fraught story.
It’s been my privilege to direct here at the Folger every year for the past eleven years. I remain grateful and honored to be trusted with this wonderful space and with you- the Folger’s excellent, insightful, exacting audience. We have been fortunate to once again assemble some extraordinary artists to help me tell this story. This gang in particular is even more…effervescent than most. I hope you enjoy their performance at least half as much as I enjoyed them every day in rehearsal. The accumulated wisdom, experience, skill and just plain talent is an inspiration.
Thanks for coming. Enjoy the show.
Photos by Carol Pratt and Jeff Malet
- The Widow/The Haberdasher/Peter: Katy Carkuff
- The Pedant/The Bartender/Nathaniel: Edward Christian
- Curtis/The Tailor: Rex Daugherty
- The Blind Balladeer: Cliff Eberhardt
- Vincentio/The Priest/Walter : Dave Gamble
- Biondello/Rafe: James Gardiner
- Lucentio: Thomas Keegan
- Hortensio: Marcus Kyd
- Baptista: Sarah Marshall
- Bianca/Sugarsop : Sarah Mollo-Christensen
- Petruchio: Cody Nickell
- Katherine: Kate Eastwood Norris
- Grumio: Danny Scheie
- Tranio: Holly Twyford
- Gremio: Craig Wallace
- Director: Aaron Posner
- Scenic Design: Tony Cisek
- Costume Design: Helen Q Huang
- Lighting Design: Jennifer Schriever
- Original Music/Musician: Cliff Eberhardt
- Sound Design: Christopher Baine
- Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow
- Production Stage Manager: Tim Burt
Disclaimer: Folger Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8022.
Xandra Weaver has a great love of the process of theater and the creation of art that has led her into working both behind the scenes and onstage. Her career includes working for many years providing sound and lights for both professional and amateur shows as well as makeup work for a feature film. At college, she specialized in makeup to earn her theater degree, and discovered a love for directing and playwrighting. She's also been a nominee for the DC area theater WATCH awards for her work with the company of The Producers with The Arlington Players.