To be honest, I'm one of the rare English major types to almost dread having to see a production of a Shakespeare play. Through a graduate seminar, I read every play at least once, and I have seen more of them staged than I could easily count. In addition, I've spent more nights than normal in theaters over the last couple of weeks. So, it was with very little excitement that I showed up on opening night of First Presbyterian Theater's The Taming of the Shrew. However, after the first couple of scenes, I was eager to see what would come next, even though I know the plot well.
The decisions made by director Thom Hofrichter and the cast are what account for how fun and fresh the production feels. And, of course, the plot twists and dialogue have a freshness that travels well across the centuries. Setting the scene in the 1970s was an interesting and successful choice. The most consistent element of that choice was a use of costumes from the period that were used to hilarious effect. The 70s music chosen to play before each act also helped to give a sense of time brilliantly.
The familiar story about a father insisting that his nasty elder daughter, Katharina, or Kate, be married before allowing any of many suitors to marry sweet, beautiful and younger daughter Bianca, has been told in many ways and adapted frequently. When the cocky Petruchio arrives on scene and vows to woo and wed Kate, things get interesting and the battle between the sexes rages.
Another refreshing aspect of this staging of Taming was the number of actors never or rarely seen on the FPT stage. We truly have some amazing local actors, but seeing new talent is always interesting, and the talent presented here is strong. Halee Shutt, seen in many roles at IPFW, plays Kate fiercely and hilariously. As her brave suitor, Zane Sade, an actor I don't think I've seen before, makes a terrific Petruchio and has one of the best stage voices I've heard on a Fort Wayne stage. The scenes in which he breaks her resistance and wins her affection, and maybe even respect, work especially well. He and Shutt have a chemistry which serves the production from their first scene together and throughout.
As Bianca and her chosen suiter, Lucentio - less interesting characters than Kate and Petruchio - Jana Kern and Chase Francis are adorable. As Lucentio's servant, Nol Beckley is super funny, particularly in a John Travolta suit when servant and master switch roles. Another unusual and really fun choice comes in the casting of Grumio, Petruchio's servant. James Hodgin, with his burly frame, big gray beard and biker head wrap, offers up some of the play's funniest scenes. He is a delight. Joel Thomas Miller, last seen as Dr. Joseph Cardin in FPT's The Children's Hour, has an incredibly good time playing Hortensio, Bianca's seemingly gay suitor.
Hofrichter told me before curtain that he had cut a bit from the script in the process of adapting it for this production, so another of my complaints (about Shakespeare plays running very long) was stifled by having Taming of the Shrew run just over two hours, including one intermission. Whatever bits and pieces may have been cut left no holes in the play and minor abbreviation with our shortened attention spans was probably a good move.
Overall, the elements of this staging come together really well and offer a fun reminder that Shakespeare still has something to offer modern audiences