THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Chicago Shakespeare Company
at the Theatre Building
A BODY CAN BE A WORRY TO ANYONE, OR A BOX TO CONTAIN OUR SOLUTIONS
You can impose all the concepts on Shakespeare's plays you want; God knows they can survive just about anything. But if you don't have the basic goods--actors who can deliver the text--the dog just won't hunt. The sort-of commedia dell'arte version of The Taming of the Shrew that John Kevin Forsythe has directed for the Chicago Shakespeare Company certainly has plenty of concepts, or at least fragments of concepts. But with one vivid exception--Bruce D. Orendorf as Petruchio--the cast lacks the stuff to bring the script alive.
Forsythe's notion of imposing a commedia scheme on the script isn't a bad one. Commedia relies on comic and grotesque masks to distinguish its various stock characters, and masks can be a good way to distract an audience from actors' inadequacies; the masks (and costumes) Michael Biddle has designed here are fun to look at. Furthermore, the play's characters certainly have parallels in commedia's archetypal figures: the befuddled old father (Baptista, whose efforts to marry off his daughters Katherina and Bianca propel the plot), the fatuous young lovers (Bianca and her suitor Lucentio), the crafty, scheming servants (Lucentio's valet Tranio, who disguises himself as his master to aid in his wooing of Bianca), the willful wench (Katherina the shrew), and the braggart out-of-towner seeking a mate (Petruchio). And masks can provide a key to revealing the inner logic of this story of men who use disguises to win the women they want: Petruchio poses as a madman to disorient his tempestuous bride Katherina long enough to tame her, and Lucentio pretends to be a tutor so he can clandestinely pursue Bianca. When Petruchio takes off his mask to reveal the loving fellow under the facade, it serves as a reminder of the understanding of psychological nuance that lifted Shakespeare far above his contemporaries.
But none of this interpretive material really works on a stage if the actors can't bring it off. Orendorf can bring it off; he's a fine young actor, with strong vocal and physical techniques that articulate his interpretive sensitivity. His Petruchio is an unorthodox one--gentle, sensitive, even slightly insecure--and very interesting to watch and listen to. But in this company--lacking in particular a Katherina to rise to his level--Orendorf's Petruchio seems a bit of an outcast.
Jacqueline Williams certainly tries to prove a worthy Katherina. She too offers an untraditional reading of the role, softening the character's usually exaggerated rowdiness to offer a Kate more sullen than shrewish. But these efforts to defuse the play's misogynistic streak simply rob it of energy rather than create a different kind of energy; Williams is missing the inner fire that makes Kate a great comic character and marks her as a spirited mate worthy of Petruchio. It doesn't help that when Williams raises her voice she muddles her lines; the famous verbal duel at Kate and Petruchio's first meeting is rushed almost beyond comprehension, a criminal waste of some of the funniest dialogue ever written. Williams's one really strong moment comes at the end, in Kate's long ode to the joys of wifely submission. Williams plays the speech as a spirited sermon, an exhortation to all women to share her vision; for once her energy doesn't obscure her words. But she's missing the ingredient that makes the speech work: a personal sense of love for her own husband.
The rest of the production is dotted with minor but annoying inconsistencies. In a nod to nontraditional casting, Forsythe has the wily servant Tranio played by a woman, Joan Deschamps; then he fudges on whether Tranio is supposed to be female or gender-neutral (meanwhile, the presence of a woman in the role clutters the play's original structure, with its parallel male-female relationships). Similarly, the fact that Jacqueline Williams is black is sometimes ignored but other times exploited--for instance, when Orendorf responds to a particularly sassy line reading from Williams with a "get-you-girl" snap of the fingers. Occasional anachronisms--a telephone book, a snatch of phrase from the theme song to Franco Zeffirelli's film Romeo and Juliet--intrude for no apparent reason.
Finally, in keeping with the commedia concept, director Forsythe has concocted bits of comic business for the servant characters--displays of acrobatics, juggling, pantomime, and the like. But whether because of flagging directorial inventiveness or the actors' physical limitations, these moments are halfhearted and self-conscious, dutiful rather than anarchic and spontaneous. Like too much else they're just not very interesting or funny.
Theater Oobleck's special brand of postgraduate snotty humor is very amusingly on display in its current quickie, A Body Can Be a Worry to Anyone, or A Box to Contain Our Solutions. Running just an hour, and playing only through this weekend, A Body continues the theme of other Oobleck shows I've seen: the oppressiveness and futility of intellectual achievement in regard to comprehending and experiencing real life. Where other theater groups have used shock-and-shake tactics to attempt to dislodge prevailing cultural icons from their shelves, the Oobleck folks employ wry, slightly smug comedy to achieve their purposes.
A Body tells the stories of two girls, Penelope and Verandah: how they grew up, went to school, got lost in the jungle of "great ideas," and finally connected in a world of their own making. The separate but interlocking stories are told by the girls in a deliberately precious, singsongy style that draws equally on Gertrude Stein and Victorian children's literature.
Stein herself literally towers over the girls' experiences, in the form of a huge rose-colored puppet; opposite Stein are two other puppets representing those illustrious champions of Great Ideas (Western European white male variety), Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. The contrast between the conservative traditionalism represented by Hutchins and Adler and the proto-feminist exploration symbolized by Stein is played out in Penelope's and Verandah's peculiar life journeys, acted out in the form of children's games on a playground set littered with cutout images of eternity (a moon, a star, a pentagram).
Terri Kapsalis and Jane Richlovsky, the work's author-actresses, are delightful performers whose sly humor and physical grace attractively match the script's clever, Stein-influenced wordplay. The live percussion score, credited to Arthur Grant and Althea Later and played by musicians listed on the program only as "Rick and Lisa (on loan from Fleshy Hollow)," playfully matches the stage movement and heightens the script's inherent musicality. Put up as a sort of curtain-raiser to Oobleck's forthcoming fall season, the piece is filled with wonderful little moments that make it both diverting and thought-provoking and show Oobleck developing a theatrical sophistication to match its intellectual concerns.