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The Taming of the Shrill

SSC whips Shakespeare's most crassly dated play into shape

By Rob Pratt

Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has remained one of the playwright's best-loved works for the tart language between lead characters Kate and Petruchio, even though it promulgates ideas about the roles of husbands and wives that make contemporary audiences wince. In the opening show of the summer 2004 season, Shakespeare Santa Cruz presents a classy new vision of Shrew, running in the outdoor Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen through Aug. 29, that manages to sharpen the cutting battle-of-the-sexes wordplay while blunting some of the objectionable Elizabethan ideas about a woman's duty to her husband.

Director Tim Ocel has trimmed out Shakespeare's opening scene "play-within-a-play" conceit and placed Shrew in post-World War II and pre-Cold War America. Ocel's vision is highly cinematic, playing on a minimal set by Kate Edmunds done in shades of gray like a black-and-white film. B. Modern's crafty costumes work like colorization added to black-and-white scenes in the movie Pleasantville. As characters open their minds to new possibilities in life, their aspects morph from shades of gray to vibrant color.

The visual effect and Ocel's shrewd direction smooth out many of the rocky ideas about the subjugation of women to male dominance in Shakespeare's text. This Shrew looks and plays like a screwball comedy; the battle of wits between the sharp-tongued Kate and the übermacho Petruchio echoes legendary exchanges between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (even though Robertson Dean, who plays Petruchio, looks more like Robert Mitchum).

Ocel creates a beautiful moment even when the play has concluded. After the women exit following Kate's climactic speech, the men lounge in a well-appointed parlor as Greg Coffin's jazzy soundtrack rises from the sound system. The men are completely oblivious to the women's movement that within two decades will upset the well-ordered world of dominant husbands and obedient wives in America of the late 1940s.

As usual, Shakespeare Santa Cruz has assembled a stellar cast. Dean, in particular, is a brilliant choice for Petruchio. He's a phenomenally good actor whose big, muscular physique and natural ease onstage make Petruchio look as if he could take on half of the patrons in the outdoor Festival Glen in a Greco-Roman wrestling match and still deflect Kate's well-aimed verbal slings and arrows in unfaltering iambic pentameter. Blaire Chandler as Kate is small and wiry like a rapier, and with a mere malevolent glare she generates shock waves that rush from stage and rattle among the trees.

Morgan Davis and Cody Nickell as the lovers Bianca and Lucentio in the more traditional romance that parallels Kate and Petruchio's are also very appealing. Supporting players are likewise top-notch. SSC veteran Mike Ryan and bottle-blond Lucas Alifano earn many laughs as servants who conspire with Lucentio in the wooing of Bianca.

The Taming of the Shrew runs in repertory through Aug. 29 as part of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's summer 2004 season. Tickets are $10-$40; call 831.459.2159.

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From the August 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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