It would have been a lot of fun to live in 1950s Italy—at least in the version that Glendale theatre company “A Noise Within” has created for their production of The Taming of the Shrew. Director Geoff Elliott transports Shakespeare’s comedy to a place where people ride bicycles, drink espresso and listen to cheesy music. And of course, everybody is obsessed with amore.
These Italian love affairs are complicated. The beautiful Bianca (Jane Noseworthy) has multiple suitors, yet her father Baptista (Apollo Dukakis) doesn’t allow her to date anyone, as he insists her older sister Kate (Allegra Fulton) must find a husband first. This seems to be an impossible feat for “Kate the curst,” as the men of Padua find her unruly, aggressive and simply unlovable.
When the eccentric Petruchio, played by a wonderfully megalomaniacal Steve Weingartner, arrives in town from Verona, Bianca’s suitors have reason to lighten up. Petruchio declares he needs a rich wife and therefore is going to marry the undesirable Kate for her dowry. He secures Baptista’s consent, and hilarity ensues. As three potential husbands use tricks and disguises to win Bianca’s heart, Petruchio and Kate start out their wedding day with a fierce power struggle. Petruchio’s goal is, of course, “the taming of the shrew.”
Shakespeare’s play poses a dilemma to any modern production. In a time when people get married for love rather than economic interests, the idea of “taming” a woman to turn her into a doting wife seems not just outdated, but also insulting and, yes: bewildering. Kate’s final speech in the play, an ode to women’s subjugated role as their husband’s servant, can turn into a trip wire for directors. The problem gets worse when productions cut the framing device Shakespeare used for the plot. In the version as it was performed during the playwright’s time, Kate’s taming is a play within the play, performed for the drunken tinker Sly. This way, the story could be interpreted as the fantasy of an alcohol-addled male.
Geoff Elliott’s production does away with Sly and the framing. Elliott tries to deal with all the misogynistic stumbling blocks by emphasizing the farcical aspects of the play and by casting a strong Kate in Allegra Fulton. Fulton navigates the terrain with irony and humor. When her character erupts in laughter after her elegantly sarcastic final speech, it becomes clear that she is having enormous fun at the cost of everybody else in the room—including the audience. And when Petruchio joins in her giggles, he signals that the couple has actually bonded. They leave this production as two happy pranksters, truly united.
Before Kate and Petruchio find true love, Elliott lets them fight: A duel of hand squeezing; a ballroom dance that is physically forced on Kate; a Petruchio who sits on his bride’s lap to stop her from leaving. Fulton and Weingartner’s nuanced relationship adds many layers to these scenes. They are full of aggression, repressed sexuality, slapstick and silliness.
Their performance is matched by a cast with a keen sense for comedy. Jane Noseworthy’s Bianca is not as prim and proper as her father and sister might think. At first sight, she looks like a well-behaved goody-goody, but wait until you see her dance! Jeremy Rabb’s Tranio looks amusingly uncomfortable with the task of pretending to be his master Lucentio. Then there is Tom Fitzpatrick as Gremio, delightfully unaware that his floppy toupée will not increase his chances with the youthful Bianca. William Dennis Hunt makes the tiny role of the "Tailor" memorable, offering an effeminate, hyper-groomed character, perpetually offended by the world that fails to recognize his genius.
Sound Designer Patrick Hotchkiss’ Italo-themed 1950s chart music sets the lighthearted and slightly ironic tone of this production. Some sly humor is also to be found in the clever set, which sports a romantic full moon as well as uncountable shuttered windows—a characteristic element of Italian inner-city housing. Set designer Kurt Boetcher plays with this theme by creating round and square, tiny and oversized shutters as a pastel colored backdrop to the action. Most of the windows stay closed during the play, making one wonder what kind of romance or marital row might be going on behind the scenes.
Soojin Lee’s costume design is beautifully done. Baptista, with his coat and suit, is decked out like the patriarch of a Mafiosi clan, and Hortensio’s bright pinstripes are simply hilarious. Lucentio, as well as all male servants, seems to have stepped right out of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian film, “The Bicycle Thief,” and Kate’s transition is reflected when she finally ditches her boring brown pantsuit and changes into a cocktail dress. Now her attire matches that of the other female characters: cute 50s style outfits with skirts that twirl during dance scenes, offering an effect that is quaint and sexy at the same time.
The farcical aspects of this production are intensified by Lena Garcia's prop design, though sometimes to the point of absurdity. Petruchio’s “horse,” for example, is a bicycle with the head of a plush horse taped to it, and it leaves the audience roaring with laughter. It is not a very subtle device, but apparently it works.
Sometimes the strife for comic effect goes a little too far. One actor tries an ill-executed accent that leaves the audience wondering if they are supposed to be listening to a German, French, or Spanish character, and pinching a servant’s ear as a comic device just seems a little broad—even more so if the act of violence is repeated over and over again. Despite these criticisms, Elliott’s Shrew remains a fast-paced production with a stellar cast.
Still, what happens on stage fails to be entirely convincing, which brings us back to this production’s lack of a sly framing tale. In the end, Kate has learned how to get along with a borderline psychotic husband, and her strategy is to humor him like a child. She seems to consider this a great way to deal with a man like Petruchio. Maybe it works for her; maybe it’s what people were into in 1950s Italy. But if Kate ever asks me for relationship advice, I will be strictly 21st century. My tip: “Woman, run for the hills!”