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Two to Tango Hot

Jennifer Kramer
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Written by Jennifer Kramer     March 30, 2015    
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Two to Tango

Photos: Mark Garvin

  • Taming of the Shrew
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Lantern Theater Company
  • March 19 - May 3
Acting 5
Costumes 4
Sets 5
Directing 5
Overall 5

The Lantern Theater's desire to update The Taming of the Shrew is obvious from its induction: instead of featuring a passing lord kidnapping a drunk hobo on a whim and deciding to gaslight him into believing he is actually a mentally unbalanced nobleman, the character of a modern Christopher Sly wanders in from the house of his own volition and passes out on the set dressings – prompting cries of "There's a man in contemporary dress on stage!" from the alarmed cast. They in turn decide to play out the same charade as the nameless lord with their victim, but now it is in retaliation to the disruption of their production – and, after all, will only last until the police arrive. Frame narrative firmly in place, the main action of The Taming of the Shrew begins, and for the most part, the Lantern's production seeks to stay true to the spirit of the play while reframing the most alarming subtext and transmuting it into something less disturbing and more nuanced.

Part of this is accomplished by the setting, "a sleepy town in Northern Italy" in "the early part of the 20th century." In his interview with KC MacMillan (associate artistic director), costumer designer Mark Mariani explains that the rationale is both artistic and thematic: "We want to be able to play with a little modernity yet keep the show set back in a time where it's actually still believable." His costume design appears to draw most of its inspiration from the 1930s, which saw both the world's continuing advancement to the modern age and a good deal of backlash to the social and sexual freedom of the Roaring Twenties. The men are turned out in a whole array of sharp three-piece suits and cunning hats; even the servants get snappy waistcoats and page-boy caps. But Mariani also manages to convey the characters' individual personalities: though their clothes are good quality, Petruchio (when he is not turning up to his wedding in long johns, Viking helmet, and half a barrel on suspenders) and his staff feature misbuttoned vests and untucked shirts; Baptista prefers to appear in a luxurious smoking jacket and Vincentio a practical but expensive mountaineer's outfit; and as critical to Lucentio's disguise as Cambio as his glasses and dark velvet blazer is his exchange of a neat bow tie for a floppy and ostentatious cravat.

However, the costuming for the women seems to lack quite the same level of attention. Bianca's pink day dress is simple but quite pretty; her hair, however, does not survive actress K.O. DelMarcelle's frequent costume changes nearly as well, and the sloppy side braid does not seem to fit Bianca's characterization at all. Kate's costumes, meanwhile, follow a stereotypical gender normative evolution. She begins the play in loose jodhpurs and a poorly-fitting button-down, and her wedding gown is frumpy and somehow old-fashioned regardless of what the year is. But after her marriage, when she has not eaten or slept for days, she appears in high heels and a neat brown patterned dress, dons a dramatic cloak and evening gloves for their return to Padua, and finally emerges in a gorgeous ruffled magenta gown for her final scene. Her change of heart and change of wardrobe are mismatched, and so the audience is left hanging as to what aspect of her personality could possibly drive a sudden turn to impeccably smart feminine attire even as her personal life is in shambles.

The architecture of scenic designer Lance Keniskern's set evokes a Mediterranean flavor befitting its peaceful setting in northern Italy, as does the color scheme: sandy walls and restrained tile floors contrast with the richly colored doors and windows in reds, oranges, blues, and dark greens, and are accented by ornamental shrubbery and window-boxes filled with flowers. With four different levels, multiple doorways (excluding all the exits through the house), Escher-like staircases, a shady alcove, a balcony, and even outdoor seating at vintage barrel tables, one might think the set could overwhelm the play. Instead, it perfectly complements the convoluted goings-on.

These are perfectly executed by the small but spirited cast, who effortlessly switch between multiple roles while delivering wordplay and pratfalls with excellent comic timing. K.O. DelMarcelle plays both the saucy Biondello (running his mouth as well as his masters' errands with youthful glee) and Bianca, giving the latter a blatantly coquette-ish façade (complete with hair-twirling and exaggerated sighs) to the delight of her oblivious father and suitors, the disgust of her sister, and the amusement of the audience. Katherine (Joanna Liao) begins the play as a bundle of poorly-restrained disgruntled rage, angry at a world she does not quite understand and which does not quite understand her. Instead of a personality wipe, Liao gives Kate an evolution that supplies her with some of that knowledge: Petruchio's deranged treatment of Grumio and his other servants awakens her empathy, and his sincerity in his speech to her in IV. 3 prompts her to extend her trust and begin agreeing with his bizarre assertions. The logic is a little unclear, but she slowly gains a leash on her wilder impulses without suppressing them entirely, and Liao portrays her at the end the play with self-confidence, a new comfort in her own sexuality (which gratifyingly transforms her final speech into a series of sly innuendos), and a much better sense of when to employ violence against those who annoy her. J Hernandez's Petruchio, meanwhile, does understand the world: he is merely not particularly invested in it until he meets Kate, a breeziness Hernandez accomplishes with an insouciant attitude and a variety of dance moves that (accurately, it turns out) suggest Petruchio is constantly on the verge of grabbing someone to tango. His affected madness is equally nonchalant, which makes his quiet and sincere discussion with Kate before they return to Padua a charming contrast.

Hernandez also plays Chris Sly: rogue Trader Joe's Customer Service trainee, inebriated interloper, and next to Kate's emotional development, one of director Charles McMahon's chief means in defusing the play's problematic subtext (and text). Unlike the original Taming of the Shrew, McMahon continues the framing device throughout the main action of the play. The first half concludes with Sly waking up alone on stage before falling back asleep, suggesting that at least part of the action is the result of his dreaming. The second half concludes similarly, though this time, after some wistful, futile flirting, Sly is escorted off-stage by his friendly neighborhood police officer – played by Kate's actress, Joanna Liao. This role reversal retroactively casts a new light on the play's insistence that wives settle for an unequal relationship where they owe total obedience to and absolute faith in their husbands: it seems to indicate that Sly, whose own life is just as disordered as Kate's, longs to submit to a loving authority figure to tame him.

Though McMahon's adaptations cannot quite overcome the shadow of the play's misogynistic overtones, the effort to do so helps its lighter elements shine through: the production is screamingly funny. Gags like sausage nunchucks and characters literally kicking the bucket accompany sharp performances by a beautifully hilarious cast. The main action of the play concludes with a traditional dance by untraditional means as everyone but the main couple does the tango with whoever and whatever is available, be it a new spouse, a new in-law, or a new mop. For all that the Lantern Theater's adaptation addresses a serious subject, it does so with humor and subtlety; it proves that for a performance of The Taming of the Shrew to stay relevant in the modern world as a comedy, it just needs the right partner.

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