The Taming of the Shrew
Center House Theatre; ends Sun., June 19
In one of the more articulate statements from a not-always-so-articulate icon, Madonna once reflected that she was attracted to men who had at least kissed or held another man because "then they don't view women as less than they are." It's pushing it, you're probably thinking, to open a Shakespeare review with a quote from a woman still best known for MTV anarchy, but then, director Stephanie Shine's remount of her 2003 Seattle Shakespeare Company production is far more pop than it is purist, and will likely appeal strictly to those who appreciate the kicky, sometimes gaudy messiness of postmodernism.
The Material Girl's musing is apt here because Shine's all-male Taming of the Shrew is about irreverently reversing the Bard's blatant chauvinism by turning his play into a ritual meant to eliminate, or at least reconsider, the oppressive romantic class distinctions between men and women. (And don't try to start an argument: Shrew is as unavoidably sexist as The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. He may have been a genius, but a 16th-century genius.) After an actor in a hard hat opens the show by removing the caution tape bordering the set—to the strains of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman"—Shine has performer George Mount run on to find himself caught at the center of a rite-of-passage bachelor party. The cast surrounds him, showers him with hugs or pats on the back, and begins hollering a joyful, foot-stomping spiritual. Mount puts on a dress, says, "I will some other be," and indeed, becomes the Bard's cantankerous Kate, to the hoots and whistles of the rest of the ensemble. From this point on, Mount is Shakespeare's shrew, more or less, but looking out from the Brechtian chalk circle Shine has drawn around the play's battle for gender supremacy. He's a guy who'll no longer view women as less than he is because he's about to know firsthand how low they're expected to go.
Anyone hoping to arrive at a more fluid notion of human sexuality out of this—or to receive the tiniest quiver of homoeroticism—can forget it. Shine stages the gender-bending as no more or less than a group of men at rambunctious play within a play. Designer Deborah Skorstad has cannily followed suit with costumes that are a cross between Shakespeare's text and Shine's commentary on it; everybody looks like a blue-collar worker making a halfhearted attempt at enjoying the fineries of a Renaissance Faire. The guys race up and down scenic designer John Kirschenbaum's series of small ramps and rises, change into costume at the side of the stage, clap and catcall from the back wall, and break into ironic musical serenades—whether it's wolfish doo-wah-diddy-diddy-dum- diddy-do-ing or a proud "Ballad of the Green Berets," which greets the boasts of Petruchio (Michael Patten) as he embarks on his plan to domesticate the wild Kate and take her off the hands of her wealthy, weary father, Baptista (Keith Dahlgren).
The effect is both energetic and thoughtful, though the show seems busier and noisier than its 2003 incarnation and, as a result, somehow more intent on distracting us from what doesn't work. With the exception of her two leads, Shine's cast is handing out ham—happy, harmless ham, but ham nonetheless. No one is quite sure how to incorporate the silly romantic complications of Bianca (Beethovan Oden), Kate's beguiling younger sister, into the overall conceit—what does Bianca's happiness have to do with Kate becoming a better man, as it were?—so all of those bits are played fast and big and (forgive me) broad. The pokes at macho posturing are fun, but when Charles Leggett, as Bianca's aged suitor Gremio, begins to hump his walker, you may wish Shine hadn't left the boys at recess quite so long.
Mount is in fighting spirit, and deftly handles the language, yet Shine's pretensions, however intriguing, put too much of the aesthetic burden on his shoulders—when he holds back tears at the end, it seems less about any revelation he's had and more about the need to show us how important this has all been. Patten has an easier job, but he's just the actor to do it. His gentle masculinity, a quality that enriched his performance as the title character of Book-It's Lady Chatterly's Lover some seasons back, fits these circumstances. He tosses off Petruchio's more aggravating ministrations against Kate as though they were just childish tomfoolery; such mellow manliness finds the right balance between what the Bard wants to do and what Shine wants to say. And what Shine wants to say—that men can attain manhood without subjugating women—is fine, indeed. Whether it's really Shrew is up to you. STEVE WIECKING
Arthur: The Hunt
Taproot Theatre; ends Sat., June 18
Consummation, birth, and now, on to the hunt! Those Brits waste no time cutting to the historical chase. Taproot's latest production, written by Jeff Berryman and directed by Scott Nolte, is the sequel to last year's successful Arthur: The Begetting, a play that delved at length into the future king's rich heritage as well as the intrigues and mysteries surrounding his parentage. If that darkly romantic prequel took its time to eke out the milieu Arthur enters—and how he enters it—this play trips the gate at a gallop and rarely slows the pace.
The Hunt opens 20 years after the end of Berryman's first play in the Arthurian cycle, with Britain and its surrounding lands teetering on the brink of political and social chaos. No one is more acutely aware of this impending disaster than Emrys (the excellent Terry Edward Moore), King of Powys and former counselor to the great Uther Pendragon. In Emrys' reckoning, the fate of Britain rests on his ability to locate Arthur, who as a child was lost in the wars two decades prior. Emrys' solution to the coming danger: Arthur, if found, will become the sole force, the benevolent autocrat whose power will o'erawe the factionalism and internecine conflict tearing the country apart at the seams. "Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope . . . "?
Just for fun, let's stretch the Star Wars reference a bit further: Princess Morgan (Sarah Lamb) of Cornwall, daughter of Queen Igraine and therefore sister to the lost Arthur, is also on the hunt, in this instance for a young warrior/law-keeper named Bledri (Sam Wilson) in the employ of young King Uriens (Robert Martin). The dramatic hooks abound, not least of which is the nagging (and potentially disturbing) question at the center of this story: Could it be that Emrys and Morgan are looking for the same person, and does that explain the ominous thunderclaps that sound every time the lips of Bledri and the princess lock? (Shades of Luke and Leia. . . . )
In the end, however, it is the solid plot—equal parts tragedy, romance, and suspense, all wrapped under the banner of historical drama—that gives this play its undeniable momentum. Uriens of Rheged, a Christian, represents in his person the early rise of that religion, and playwright Berryman does an excellent job portraying the subtle yet powerful struggle of a nascent Christianity confronting both an older, entrenched culture of polytheism and the secular cynicism engendered by a world turned upside down. But this is just one of the play's many well-wrought historical details, which include Berryman's fine ear for language, which at times bursts with a gorgeous, Shakespearean grandiloquence.
As in The Begetting, director Nolte does a superb job evoking the misty, dusky exoticism of the Middle Ages without bogging down in the reedy moors of ponderousness and pomposity— the production moves. The balanced cast works wonderfully as an integrated unit in what amounts to an ensemble piece, though both Candace Vance, as the beautifully dark-browed Queen Gwen, and Lamb, as the fierce, stubborn princess, give stand-out performances (thanks, in part, to Berryman's deeply realized, emotionally honest characterizations).
The Hunt is a fitting sequel, full of tangled emotions, clashing ambitions, and big, meaty characters confronting the crushing tides of social and political change. Yes, it's timely stuff, with subtexts everywhere you choose to dig. Even more importantly, though, Taproot meets the "rules of the sequel" challenge by upping the ante and creating anticipation for the next installment. Stayeth tuned. . . . RICHARD MORIN