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Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Whatever John Fletcher's motives, 'The Tamer Tamed' makes for great comic theater

By Sarah Phelan

When John Fletcher wrote The Tamer Tamed, his aim, it's generally agreed, was to attract Shakespeare's attention by parodying and inverting the sexual politics of the master playwright's Taming of the Shrew.

His plan worked pretty well. Within a year, Fletcher was co-writing three plays with Shakespeare and eventually inherited Will's role as main dramatist for the most successful theater company in London. And despite the fact that The Tamer was at one point banned--purportedly because of things offensive to "church and state"--the play, which is subtitled The Woman's Prize, became popular repertory fare in the 17th century--and remained so until a 19th-century Victorian England deemed it way too coarse.

Fast-forward to Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2004 summer season, where we find the Tamer riding again, this time in its California premiere and with all its much ballyhooed coarseness lovingly fleshed out. Director Danny Scheie keeps the play's original shock factor intact, as some very neo-Jacobean toilet humor, edifying lessons in how to defend yourself with a chamber pot and a bra-burning episode take the show over the top--and thanks to the antics of one burka-swathed "wife" (could it be Osama bin Laden has been found?), right into the present day.

Tightly coupled with the Shrew (Robertson Dean plays Petruchio in both Shrew and Tamer, while Blaire Chandler plays his respective wives, Kate and Maria, in each production), Tamer is a fast-moving comedy, whose premise is that Kate has died and Petruchio has remarried.

But his new wife, Maria, who seemed like a softie before their marriage, turns the tables on him on their wedding night, barricading herself into her room and vowing not to consummate the marriage until Petruchio himself is tamed--a plan that her sister Livia rightly deems "as easy as a sieve to scoop the ocean."

And so the dynamic is set. With the men from the wedding party goading Petruchio to take what is now legally his, Petruchio resorts to trying to trick Maria into submission. Maria remains holed up in her bedroom, aided and abetted by her now radicalized cousin, the saucily clad "Colonel Bianca" (Morgan Davis).

As for Blaire Chandler, on opening night she embellished her already brilliantly coquettish performance with a smoothly improvised "I'm sorry, you were saying?" when a redwood branch threatened to upstage the drama by loudly breaking, then dropping onto the wings of the stage. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and thanks to Chandler's quick response, the comedy raced on at its necessary breakneck pace.

A buff Robertson Dean put in a fine performance as the rejected groom, one moment comparing Maria's appearance to "flayed cats," next begging to be admitted into her bedroom, then finally declaring war on her with a laughable "No sport, no pie" threat.

Special mentions go to the ball-spinning, crybabying and otherwise thoroughly entertaining Cody Nickell. Nickell plays Rowland, the young admirer of Livia (Saraya Rao), Maria's younger sister, who is desperately trying to avoid being married off to an elderly toupee juggling Moroso, played to the hilt by Patrick Kerr.

If there's any criticism of this production it's that the second half drags a little, a necessary aftermath, perhaps, of the bra-burning shocker, but thanks to inventive lighting, scenic design and comic interactions, the audience remains captivated to the end. The comic denouement takes on noirish tones, given that Fletcher was to eventually die of the plague himself. Or as one historical source puts it, "John Fletcher, invited to goe with a Knight into Norfolke or Suffolke in the Plague-time of 1625, stayd but to make himselfe a suite of Cloathes, and while it was makeing, fell sick of the Plague and dyed."

If that last sentence was tough for you, you'll appreciate the energy Scheie and company bring to milking the meaning and accessibility out of Fletcher's language--especially in the first half. The weaker writing of the second act gives us some indication of why, despite Fletcher's ambitious maneuvering, Shakespeare is the playwright celebrated today.

The Tamer Tamed plays through Aug. 29. Call 831.459.2159 for ticket information or visit www.shakespearesantacruz.com.

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From the August 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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