Any director tackling Shakespeare is likely to want to put his or her personal stamp on the tragedy or comedy in question, be it the gazillionth Hamlet or the ump-ump-umpteenth Taming Of The Shrew. Stephanie A. Coltrin is no exception, and under her imaginative direction, Hermosa Beach Playhouse’s Taming Of The Shrew becomes a broadly-played comedic delight.

Taking her cue from silent film comic legends the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and assorted others, Coltrin turns Shakespeare’s tale of brute vs. bitch into a veritable festival of slapstick gags and pratfalls, in addition to quite possibly the highest number of shrieks in any Shakespeare production on record.

Lucentio & Tranio and Petruchio & Grumio are just two of the duos whose names can be added to the classic comedy pairings of Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello in Coltrin’s Taming Of The Shrew. A scene which has Grumio wrestled down to the ground by Petruchio, the latter forcing his servant to smack himself over and over again, is one that any two of The Three Stooges would have had a field day playing. A later catfight between sisters Katherine and Bianca is reminiscent of those Alexis-vs.-Krystal hair-pulling matches on Dynasty, a considerably more modern inspiration to be sure, but every bit as funny.

This admittedly irreverent approach to Shakespeare not only raises the laugh quotient to the nth degree but inspires over a dozen splendid performances as well.

As Katherine, the divine Suzanne Dean fires her voice like a machine gun at a horde of cowering men, yet reveals in her eyes a woman’s hurt at forever finding herself in the shadow of a younger, prettier, more sought after sister. Watching Dean’s reactions (furious, confused, subtly delighted) as Petruchio begins to woo her Kate is a real treat.

The fabulous Patrick Vest morphs from nerdy lawyer Paul Bratter in the Playhouse’s recent Barefoot In The Park to his mirror opposite—sexy, bearded, swashbuckler Petruchio. Vest and Dean have great chemistry from the very start, chemistry which grows stronger and more sexual as the gloves come off.

Curly-headed L.A. newcomer Drew Shirley gives Lucentio the appeal of a young Tom Hanks opposite a charming Barbara Suiter as a coquettish Bianca, her pretty head swollen by all the male attention she attracts.

Adorable Ryland Dodge (Tranio) and feisty Cylan Brown (Grumio) make for a terrific pair of sidekicks. Dodge gets laugh after laugh when taking over his master’s persona as “Fake Lucentio,” whether mocking Gremio’s (David Graham) every word while recoiling from his bad breath (a clever running gag) or loving his new life as boss to Biondello (Raul Avina, a young Dom DeLuise). Brown, a master at yelping in a production with more yelps than you can shake a stick at, scores high marks throughout, particularly in one of Shakespeare’s classic comic soliloquies as Grumio recounts the hectic road back to town with Petruchio and his starving, exhausted bride.

Director Coltrin has cast Taming Of The Shrew’s supporting roles with a topnotch blend of Hermosa Beach favorites and newbies, most of whom have considerable Shakespeare on their résumés. David Graham makes for a funny, fussy, foppish Gremio, lace collar ruffled and hanky ever in hand. Kerr Seth Lordygan is a dryly amusing Hortensio, vainly attempting to tune his “lute” (i.e. guitar) and later appearing with said “lute” wrapped around his neck. Recent U.K.-to-L.A. transplant Robin Parrish delights as a French-accented tailor. Later, opposite an equally adept Matt Bolte, he and his scene partner make for one more smashing comic duo as matched pair Nathaniel and Nicholas. Ted Escobar is another winner as Lucentio’s real father Vincentio, scoring laughs for his dumbfounded reactions when Kate (under Petruchio’s orders) adresses him as a “budding virgin.”

In addition to the somewhat age-blind casting of several key characters, Coltrin ingeniously casts two roles gender-blind. Katherine’s father Baptista is now her same-named mother (presumably widowed), a sex change which permits Katherine Cursi-Prenovost to sink her talented teeth into a part usually reserved for a considerably older man, and allows a drunken Petruchio to plant a big fat smooch on his mother-in-law’s lips. In addition to her role as a bitchy widow, Playhouse regular Kimberly Patterson gets to play servant Curtis as an Irish-brogued maid—to saucy effect, she too swooning when snogged by Vest’s busy lips.

Performing on Christopher Beyries’ gorgeous Italianesque set, the cast’s stage movements make this Taming Of The Shrew seem at times almost like a musical (minus the singing). Coltrin adds some amusing, well-staged (and timed) blackout montages as the wedding guests wait for groom Petruchio to arrive. There’s a classic “I had no idea that was you!” moment when Lordygan’s Hortensio pulls off a shaggy wig (“Mistake no more: I am not Licio!”) to everyone’s absolute astonishment. As for anybody who might think Shakespeare dated, the venerable Bard may well have been the first playwright to pen a comic rejoinder like Baptista’s when Petruchio asks, “Pray, have you not a daughter called Katherine, fair and virtuous?” and Baptista responds with “I have a daughter, sir, called Katherine…”—conspicuously minus adjectives.

Ric Zimmerman’s lighting makes Beyries’ set even more gorgeous, with sound designer Kevin Goold’s musical backdrop transporting us to some past century’s Italy. Christa Armendariz’s costumes are among her best, with extra points for schoolteacher Lucentio’s graduation robes and wire-rimmed glasses, Petruchio’s huge feathered wedding turban, and Kate’s Act Two wedding gown and hair—a bedraggled, exhausted mess. Ricarda McKissock is stage manager and Nicole Wessel assistant director.

Following last season’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming Of The Shrew makes the Hermosa Beach Playhouse the South Bay Cities place to be for big-stage Shakespeare, and upcoming a year or so from now is Hamlet! This reviewer for one can’t wait to see how Coltrin and the Playhouse put their stamp on the Bard’s Greatest Hit—and in the meantime there’s a shrew to be tamed!

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.
–Steven Stanley
March 29, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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