I’ve been known to say that I’m not the world’s biggest Shakespeare fan. In last December’s review of Love’s Labor’s Lost, I confessed that “I often get lost in his convoluted plots, whole chunks of dialog whizzing past me or over my head without really sinking in.”  Well, just as I thoroughly enjoyed Love’s Labor’s Lost last December, I’m happy to report that I absolutely loved The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Circus Theatrical’s new production of The Taming Of The Shrew.  It only took the first lines of dialog for me to have that “Eureka!” moment of thinking, “Wow, I’m actually understanding everything they’re saying, and it’s funny to boot!”  Precisely what audiences in Shakespeare’s time must have been thinking when Shakespeare’s verse was not that far removed from actual contemporary speech.

The actors assembled by director-star Jack Stehlin are the kind of honest-to-goodness Shakespeare pros who can make late-16th Century iambic pentameter as comprehensible as, say,  Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps (coincidentally running on the Odyssey stage right next door to Taming Of The Shrew).  They realize that the highest respect they can pay The Bard is to treat his writing as if it were today’s English and not some kind of antiquated poetry.  They understand exactly what they’re saying, and as a result so do we.

The proof of this was made absolutely clear in the Q&A which followed last night’s performance. An audience member from Europe, whose first language is not English, revealed that she had never before found Shakespeare clearer or easier to understand.  Another playgoer confessed that he’d tried to think up an excuse to get out of attending the performance, and now found himself delighted that he hadn’t come up with one. Like me, he was captivated from the get-go.

Stehlin sets this Shrew in the 1910s (as Nikki Delhomme’s terrific costumes reveal) because, he says, this is the most recent era in which a young woman might still find herself in Katherine’s shoes as someone whose only future lay in marriage, a woman who lived in a time in which the fairer sex was still denied the vote or, for that matter, any kind of equality under the law. This allows contemporary audiences to see Katherine’s “submission” to Petruchio’s will as a historical phenomenon and not one to judge by modern standards. In addition, the absolutely splendid work of Stehlin and his leading lady, the divine Bridget Flanery, makes it clear that Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship works, not because he’s the boss and she’s his slave, but because each truly complements the other. This is a man who in his own sly way has brought happiness and joy into the life of an unhappy, joyless woman, and has found in her the ideal sparring partner and lover. There is no irony in Katherine’s final soliloquy, delivered by a radiant Flanery as a Kate overflowing with love. No one need squirm when Katherine says, “I am ashamed that women are so simple To offer war where they should kneel for peace, Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, Whey they are bound to serve, love, and obey.” It may well be Kate who has Petruchio wrapped around her little finger, and not the other way around.

Stehlin’s Petruchio is one scrappy, pugnacious guy, just the man to fall for Flanery’s Katherine, a raging dynamo of anger and frustration, along with a good deal of pent-up passion bubbling under the surface. What woman, even one as beautiful as this Kate, might not feel frustrated to see her delicate flower of a sister (an adorable Katy Downing as Bianca) getting all the attention?  Perhaps all this anger is just a defense mechanism.  If men don’t want me, I’ll make sure that they REALLY don’t want me.  And then comes Petruchio.

Director Stehlin has surrounded his leads with one of the finest and most imaginative supporting casts ever, beginning with Geoffrey Owens as Tranio, servant to Lucentio (a handsome, romantic Charles Pasternak) who switches identities with his master, the better for Lucentio to court the fair Bianca by posing as her tutor. As Tranio, Owens reacts to his master with hilarious, wry “Here we go again” looks, then transforms himself into the gentleman to end all gentlemen as the fake Lucentio.  I’d venture to guess that few actors have ever generated as many laughs from the role of Tranio as Owens does here with his every action and reaction.

The masterful Thomas Kopache is nearly as funny as Petruchio’s grizzled servant Grumio.  Tom Groenwald and Dana Kelly Jr. do wonderful work as Bianca’s would-be suitors Hortensio and Gremio, the former getting many laughs simply by donning a beard (that refuses to stay stuck) and pretending to be a music instructor, the latter a good sport when jabs are poked at his character’s advanced years.

Completing the cast in expert fashion are John Ross Clark (Curtis, Pedant), John Copeland (Philip, Tailor, Serving Man), Jesse Gibbs (Biondello), Jordan Lund (Baptista), Jim McCaffree, Bibi Tinsley (Widow), and Alexander Wells (Vicentio).

In keeping with Circus Theatricals’ name, Victoria Profitt’s simple but quite gorgeous set design, Derrick McDaniel’s multicolored lighting, and Roger Bellon’s original music give the entire production a carnival feel. 

In the final analysis, though, “the play’s the thing,” and the ultimate success of this Taming Of The Shrew rests on its phenomenal cast’s shoulders. I’m seeing A Noise Within’s production of the same play this Sunday.  It’s exciting to have the opportunity to see two professional productions of The Taming Of The Shrew within a week’s time, but Odyssey Theatrical Ensemble/Circus Theatricals’ production will be a hard, hard act to follow.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 4, 2009
                                                   Photos: Enci

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