The very idea of an abbreviated Shakespeare play will likely drive purists mad. Granted, omitting portions of a beloved playwright's dialogue is not a task to be undertaken lightly. But Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "Short Shakespeare" rendition of The Taming of the Shrew is both short and very very sweet.
The Taming of the Shrew is about two daughters, the younger of which cannot marry until the elder does. The only problem is that no one in their right mind would want to marry the irritable, shrewish Katherina, leaving the younger Bianca's many suitors disappointed. Amid false identities and a whole lot of slapstick, tempers are tamed and happy marriages are made.
The show is structured as a play within a play. The action opens as a series of masked ensemble cast members wait to hear the tale. A curtain opens (literally) on the entire cast frozen and ready to begin, and the ensemble moves characters into place and initiates the action. It's a very clever opening mirrored by an equally clever ending, when Clown (Gerson Dacanay) who started the action stops it again and turns off the stage lights.
The play within a play scenario sets forth very little in scenery, but in this case, a little goes a long way. The "stage" has a backdrop of the city of Padua, where the action takes place. This would seem cheap and hokey if the actors did not make such excellent use of it. The backdrop becomes another prop to work with, and does more for the play than the most lavish, stationery set ever could.
Underneath nearly every character's wardrobe, the striped shirts of the opening masked ensemble is visible, but always seems a logical part of each person's costume, and is never out-of-place. When Tranio (Alan Schmuckler) and Lucentio (Christopher McLinden) switch places, the two men of very dissimilar heights start changing clothes and offer one of the best gags in the show.
Attention must be drawn to Petruchio's wedding outfit, which he wears only to upset Katherina and give her a bit of her own medicine. It is meant to be a fashion disaster, and it doesn't dissappoint. A red and yellow striped, denim-accented monstrosity (in the best sense), the theater could put it on display and sell tickets. It is so ugly it's fabulous, and answers the question of what would happen if Shakespeare was a contestant on "Project Runway." Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic has created something so magnificent and scene-stealing, it could be its own character. Of course, the outfit would be nothing without the man to fill it, and the man to fill Petruchio's mismatched shoes, Ben Viccellio, is ideal. He is both smarmy and sexy, and even when his motives are questionable, you can't help but fall for his quick wit and silver tongue. DeAwna McGinley's Katherina is a suitable counterpoint for Viccellio. The two maintain such pace and are so enjoyable together that the audience longs for them to come back whenever offstage. The play boasts many great characters and actors talented enough to bring them to life, but none have the same spark as the two leads. Katherina could, however, have a more convincing hair piece when it is meant to look awry.
Credit must also be given to musician Chris Cantelmi who remains onstage throughout, accentuating actions, gestures, expressions, and pratfalls with various sound effects. His timing is always perfect, and the sound effects turn already funny gimmicks into something even better.
Part of the motivation for "Short Shakespeare" is to introduce younger children to works they otherwise wouldn't encounter until high school. At this producton of The Taming of the Shrew, the audience covers a wide age range, some as young as eight or nine. And while they may not understand every single word, they do laugh and applaud as loudly (if not more than ) as any of the adults. This is not only a great show, it's a great family experience, with a recommended Q&A to follow.