July 2005

The Taming of the Shrew
Directed by David Ferry

June 29 – August 7, 2005 Shakespeare Works by the Lake, Ashbridges Bay Park Toronto

by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
Toronto has in its midst another beautiful, artistic treasure that re-enforces the concept that this wonderful city is a vanguard for the cities of the future — ethnically and culturally diverse, and devoted to the spiritual and creative aspects of our common human experience. I’m speaking, of course, of the breathtaking Home Depot “Shakespeare Works” Theatre, located in the equally breathtaking Ashbridges Bay Park. The theatre has just kicked off it’s second season with a well-conceived, innovative, entertaining mounting of one of William Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular plays, “The Taming of the Shrew”. Director David Ferry has done a phenomenal job of contemporizing the play to pre-World War I Italy, without diminishing its considerable impact.
In our modern times of “political correctness”, the play is still, after hundreds of years, a powder keg of controversy, that can’t help but challenge our ideas of gender equity, misogyny and control issues. Ferry’s inspired approach, as well as the brilliant performances of the cast, show us that things aren’t always what they seem — that the characters of Kate and Petruchio (particularly) have a huge interior life that propels them through a surprising journey together. A journey that is just as valid today, as it was in Elizabethan times, when a skinny boy would have played “Kate”.

Ferry’s “Shrew” utilizes several interesting conventions that begin to grab the audience from the moment that they arrive on site — most notably, a strolling band of turn-of-the-century “buskers” who perform a sort of proto-jazz on tuba, accordion, violin, guitar, percussion and voice. This same ensemble introduces act breaks, and other transitions. It wasn’t until well into the show, that I realized that some of the musicians in the ensemble had major roles in the play — most particularly Paul Braunstein on percussion, and as “Grumio” — Petruchio’s #1 gumbah. Braunstein (who can be seen regularly on “Train 48”) is a thorough delight. His deconstruction and re-assembly of the Shakespearean dialogue results in perhaps the most original interpretation of Grumio that I have ever seen. He ingratiated and mesmerized the audience from his first step onstage (which was done, by the way, through the open air/invisible back wall of the theatre). Also delightful is Marion Day playing guitar and a Kate’s young sister, the beautiful, lithe, spoiled and deadly funny “Bianca”. Ryan Field is not only the talented violinist of the musical group (channeling Stefan Grapelli), but he also delivers a first-rate performance as “Lucentio”, Bianca’s suitor. Field and Day have a wonderful chemistry, and created likeable and fully-fleshed out characters — one does wonder about their characters’ future as a hypothetical married couple however, with them both being such huge mendacitors. Other stand out performances include the quirky, Dennis Leary-esque Christopher Morris as “Tranio” and the irrepressible and skilled physical comic actor, Dylan Roberts as “Biondello”. In a hilarious comic turn, Paul Eves plays the character of “Pedant” (now a “Pedant from Munich”) with comic gusto. His Hitlerian moustache and Tyrolean gear were sidesplitting.

Although I don’t believe that there’s any real proof of this, but I would bet that actors in the early Elizabethan Theatre imbued the characteristics of their current socio/political figures on various supporting characters. Actors being what they are, I think that it’s a given.

Elizabeth Saunders as “Katharina” has a very difficult job…how do you express Kate’s ill temper and downright constant bad mood without “peaking” too early in the play, and alienating the audience with over the top vocal volume and mannerisms. I think that the answer is in the consummate skill of Elizabeth Saunders, and in the subtext of “Kate” that she must have created for herself. Ms. Saunders plays Kate as someone who has a good and generous nature, but has been worn out and disillusioned by the circumstances of her life, and is in a constant state of sexual and emotional frustration. We don’t know anything about Kate’s mother — but I don’t think that it’s a far stretch to imagine that perhaps her mother died when she was very young — possibly in childbirth with Bianca. Kate — rather than being allowed to be a little girl — was “parentilized” into caring for her sister. She’s brilliant, so she was able to survive it — but at the expense of her own jeunesse. A weak and materialistic father has done little to re-affirm any sort of trust in men, and a man would have to be her intellectual equal to satisfy her keen intelligence. I have no way of knowing if any of those elements were so literally in the actress’ mind — but she certainly created a complex character that sparked my imagination, and longed for a happy ending.

Paulino Nunes as Petruchio is a virtual geyser of testosterone. From the moment that he steps onstage (again through the missing “5th” wall), it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. He is unintimidated by the language, and therefore gives the most completely unmannered, and naturalistic interpretation of the Shakespearean language in the cast. I believe that his deep, almost inconsolable grief at his father’s death, is one of the key motivations of his character. Petruchio is trying to almost “shock” himself out of his sadness, by venturing to change his life in the most dramatic way possible — marriage. He doesn’t need money, but he IS suffering under the heavy weight of loneliness. Petruchio’s journey is really quite astounding, and the completely believable performance by Nunes lets us see the character’s sensitivity and vulnerability. Petruchio understands early on that he is the perfect soul mate for Katharina. He sees her intelligence and her beauty of spirit. At the end of the play, when he kneels down directly across from Kate, and following her line, “May it do him ease”, he gently places his hand under hers. One of the finest moments that I have seen onstage, and certainly a brilliant directorial decision.

Often, those who try to make Shakespeare accessible to contemporary audiences are vilified by shortsighted critics who can’t move past John Gielgud in a pair of non-stretch tights. The works of William Shakespeare are not the Torah, The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Koran or the Book of Kells — or any other sanctified religious text — they are works of popular entertainment, rife with language and multi-dimensional characters. They are, in fact, Willy the Shake’s generous gift to generations of theatregoers — a gift to be held in trust.

Current presenters of Shakespeare do have a responsibility to the “iambic pentameters”, so to speak — but perhaps they have an even greater responsibility to perpetuate the work, by using a wide, theatrical pallette that ignites passion and imagination — the heady stuff that ensures the seduction of future players who will take to the boards with their own unique interpretations. Director David Ferry and The Shakespeare Works have done just that, and more. For a mere “Tooney”, students up to age eighteen can see a show, and have a front row seat for inspiration. Bravo!

One of my only criticisms of the production would be the rather anachronistic, half-hearted approach to the costuming — and most specifically with regard to the character of “Kate” — in other words, an inexpensive pair of vinyl, calf-length lace-up boots from Payless Shoes, does not a turn-of-the-century period costume make. This may seem petty to some – but the devil is in the details, and when you are asking for substantial suspension of dis-belief from an audience by setting it in a specific time, you better damn well present historically correct costumes.

In the opening scene, Kate is seen in an unfortunate magenta skirt with the back zipper protruding, and a foot of red thread (from a distractingly unraveling hem), non chalantly floating by, a foot above the stage floor. The aforementioned sad little skirt was accompanied by an equally offensive partner — a whiter-than-white synthetic material non-descript, contemporary blouse. There was a momentary reprieve when I saw the backside of Kate’s “Wedding Dress”. However, once the full dress was on view to the audience, it was more World War I, Red Cross Nurse (see Sondra Bullock in Hemingway Film), than up-scale Victorian/Edwardian bride.

In the play’s closing scene — during which Katharina delivers her most important (and controversial) soliloquy, the long-suffering Elizabeth Saunders was again costumed in a nightmarish ensemble — a singularly unflattering gray suit that attempted to conform to the historical requirements of the period, but just didn’t. In fact it reminded me of something that the actor Danny DeVito wore in his memorable characterization of “The Penguin” from the “Batman” film franchise.

However, the concept of the gender-bending costuming at the end of the play was wonderful — but I don’t think that it was completely fair for Paulino Nunes as Petruchio to look prettier in his outfit than Elizabeth Saunders as Katharina did in hers. Poor “Katharina” was at constant risk of her otherwise excellent performance being sabotaged by her horrendous costumes.

The Shakespeare Works and their current production should be commended, supported, attended and talked about. As “The Taming of the Shrew” came to a close, the talented cast began to sing a beautiful song in Italian (an arrangement of the Italian folk song, “Amore”), and gradually morphed into a moving tableau that eventually passed out of the play’s precious reality, through the 5th wall, and into the surrounding natural beauty of Ashbridges Bay Park. I was left pretty much breathless, and totally satisfied with an evening of magnificent theatre. The entire experience really was — to quote the character Lucentio — “The wished heaven of my bliss”.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
• • • • • •
The Live Music Report
• •

| Home | Archives | CD Reviews | Photo Galleries | Concert Listings | Contact |

Please contact us to secure permission for use of any material found on this website.
© The Live Music Report 2005