The Cutting Ball Theatre provides quite a bit of literature for their production of The Taming of the Shrew, and like the production, the literature is jumbled and not to be trusted (for the sake of bias). Most importantly, director Rob Melrose wants his audience to focus on the play’s Induction, featuring the duping of Christopher Sly, rather than the more commonly developed plot of Kate and Petruchio. Fine in theory, but watching this production reminds me of a paper I wrote my first year in grad school. I believe the comments given by my professor were something to the effect of “Denise, granted you know a lot of things, but you don’t need to include all of those things in one paper. Pick a theme and stick with it. Lacks focus.” Ouch. Still kinda rings in my ears, but likely because it was good advice.
So what do we have here? A combination of “Commedia dell’Arte, clowning, hip-hop music and dance, meta-theatre, and sexual fetishism” set in modern day San Francisco—the Mission District, to be exact. Christopher Sly (David Sinaiko) is a loud and obnoxious drunkard in a do-rag and a leather vest. He falls into a drunken sleep and is (little does he know) subsequently made a fool by a Lord (Paige Rogers) who reigns in the underground world of fetishism. This concept is far too far from the edge to be called edgy, as the play does little to excite any sort of fetishism outside of a few smooches, a loud and comically-used double paddle, and some undeveloped intrigue between Lucentio (Chad Deverman) and Tranio (Ponder Goddard).
In Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), Christopher Sly never wakes from his noble dream. After a line or two in Act 1, he’s left to, perhaps, snooze in the “audience” while a group of traveling players perform The Taming of the Shrew. Sly is never heard from again. In Melrose’s production, Sly sleepwalks throughout, and rounds his dream with an Epilogue, of sorts. The inclusion of the Epilogue follows the text of what scholars call the “Bad Quarto” entitled The Taming of A Shrew (1594). Melrose wants us to question how we see ourselves, and how we project ourselves in response to external stimuli. He wants us to consider and question the “changeability of identity.” To emphasize this, Sinaiko (Sly) and Rogers (Lord) are asked to switch their status roles and perform the two leads in this play, as drunkard becomes the tamer, and Lord becomes the tamed.
But even before we get to the point of Petruchio and Kate, the audience is hit with so much external stimuli, I’m afraid we all started to question our own sense of place. A charming couple walks into the theatre and takes some seats stage left. Gent in tails and a top hat; his lady in a red gown, hearkening back to Hollywood’s silent movie days. They are followed by Sinaiko, who stomps his way into the audience. Sinaiko breaks into the play; three “Fly Girls” groove to a boom box stage right, and Rogers half-heartedly kisses any female she can get her hands on before using her garage door opener to reveal her cool digs in the Mission. Make note that Rogers’ is plastered with scabs on her knees and one heck of a sunburn, noticeable by the two blazing strap lines gracing her shoulders. This production is most certainly a good example of physical theatre, but the marks on Rogers are distracting, at best, and could have been covered quite easily.
There is no immediate reference to Commedia’s stock characters, outside of what is already perhaps drawn by Shakespeare. The actors wear sometimes glasses, sometimes sunglasses, and sometimes no glasses at all, and I tried my darndest to make sense of this device, but I was left without insight. This is a very physical production, however, that relies on musical numbers, slapstick humor, and improvisation throughout. These are functions of Commedia dell’Arte. The three “Fly Girls” hip-hop onto the stage during each and every scene change to perform a dance, but it’s difficult to call them “Fly Girls” when only one is truly fly (Lisa Tsubouchi). A “slap” or “punch” onstage provokes a silly sound effect from offstage, and Avery Monsen as Grumio provides great loads of punchy comedy and laughs. Monsen is, frankly, the real star of this production. Perhaps Melrose should revamp his play and beckon John Lacy’s 1667 adaptation, Sauny the Scot, which makes Grumio the main character. In comparison, all other actors on this stage fall short. They also don’t seem to fit together as a troupe. Melrose states that he has taken “a wide variety of San Franciscans (to) take on different roles in the play.” The result is an incohesive jumble rather than a representation of diversity. I can’t even say that Kate or Petruchio are tamed. They certainly do not fall in love on this stage, and Kate has no reason whatsoever to acquiesce. There is no wooing. No winning. Just some potty humor and a lot of loud talking.
Outside of Monsen’s slapstick and Tsubouchi’s fly dancing, the most interesting concept on this stage is left underdeveloped. The Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall. Monsen chips at it quite a bit by addressing his audience, stealing their programs and eyeglasses to unsuccessfully start a fire, and by tossing a corn dog into the full house, for which he apologizes, and by which his audience laughs. But do you remember that charming couple in the Hollywood garb? I spent a good deal of time watching the gent comb his beard rather than the “Fly Girls” dance for the umpteenth time, only to learn that they were not part of the production at all. After the play, they were out to taste a little of San Francisco’s diversity at the Silent Film Festival over in the Castro. How nice, and in case you read this, thank you for the invitation to join. Regrets. It would have served this production well to keep an active audience to watch Sly’s play. Scatter them around. Engage the audience more, and add another layer to this play within a play. Now that has potential, as do many of Melrose’s ideas. Just not in the realm of one, single, unfocused production.