Plopping Shakespeare into a cabaret setting seems like a very risky venture. However, so does paring down Andrew Lloyd Weber to fit into a tiny café. Theo Ubique had wild success with Weber, though, recently reeling in a massive amount of non-equity Jeff Awards for their spring production of Evita. To open this season, the spunky company tackles The Taming of the Shrew, a work a few centuries older than their usual musical flavored fare. The earnest performances tear down the fourth wall and make the intimate space work for this famous comedy, but a flimsy handling of the language keeps this innovative production from reaching its full potential.
In the director’s note, Nick Minas describes what Elizabethan theatregoers would witness at one of Shakespeare’s original productions: food, musicians and jugglers—not unlike the cabarets of later centuries. And the cabaret style that Theo Ubique has nailed down works well for Shakespeare’s comedic styling. Tucked away in Rogers Park in the cozy No Exit Café, clowns, lovers and ludicrous lords traipse around the tables and drink at the bar.
Minas and his cast do a brilliant job with using the entire space and engaging the audience. The show begins with the removal of the backstage curtain, revealing Lucentio and Tranio staring through the windows facing Glenwood Avenue. The use of this window is the highlight of the show. The audience watches characters peer into the café, run from entrance to entrance, and Kate (Jenny Lamb) even graffitis the building (“Bianca Sucks, Kate Rocks”). It also adds a street performance vibe to the production, as we may watch how people walking by react to the show. They must be pretty baffled seeing actors running around the street decked out in Jill Van Brussel’s excellent costumes, which reference Elizabethan England, turn-of-the-century cabarets, and modern fashion. Whenever possible, the actors reference the unsuspecting audience, seeking support or sympathy. Opening up the window is a truly inspired choice; it adds another facet to the production and totally redefines the performances.
However, many of the actors are unable to wrangle down Shakespeare’s language. While the concepts are fleshed out and the cabaret style is vibrantly portrayed, the actual text is muddled and unclear. This serves as a painful reminder that the scrappy little company has its limitations. Ben Mason’s Hortensio has a great physicality, but he speeds through most of his lines and consequently, the story suffers. Ryan Jarosch as Grumio also rushes through some lines, but no one in the cast has a great grasp on Shakespeare’s words. More attention should’ve been paid to studying the verse. Considering the text is already full of puns and references that don’t make instant sense to a modern audience, failing to give it the proper respect can be disastrous. Fortunately, the cast is talented and charismatic enough that some of the hurried or imprecise lines can be forgiven, but these missteps add up and blur the story.
Theo Ubique has played up the original compositions by Ethan Deppe that appear throughout the production. Much of the music is a cappella and has a fun, carnival-like atmosphere. A few monologues that are turned into song lyrics feel more unnecessary than enlightening. The production is also filled with sound effects—cymbals, slide whistlers, shakers of various kinds—that are used throughout. This adds a “Looney Toons” quality to this Shrew, but they are used too often. Some restraint would make this stylistic choice a lot funnier.
Besides stumbling with the language, the performances are pretty solid. Jeremy Van Meter makes a powerful, sexual Petruchio. Lamb’s Kate is terrifying, yet can reach into the vulnerability the character needs. The two match each other’s energy beautifully, and Minas fills their interactions with intensely physical combat and seduction. Matthew Sherbach is cross-cast as Bianca and does a great job capturing her brattiness. This adds another degree of comedy when Steve Gensler’s wide-eyed Lucentio courts her. Mike Oleon as Tranio, however, can’t seem to connect with the audience or with the rest of the cast, and in effect, Oleon’s performance falters.
The final flaw with this production comes with Kate’s monologue at the end. If played too seriously, the monologue, describing how women should obey their husbands, comes off as backwards for modern audiences. Lamb and Minas can’t seem to find the right way to make the finale work, so we’re not sure if Kate has been beaten into submission or is tricking Petruchio. In the end, we just feel uncomfortable.
Considering the challenges of the text and space, though, Minas’ cabaret attempt at the Bard is laudable. And if you come early enough, you’ll be treated to an Italian dinner served by the actors in costume—another Theo Ubique tradition. Because of their overflowing creativity and curiosity, this company is still a treasure among the storefront scene. The use of music, the window and the café space is fascinating and makes for a unique theatrical event, even if you’re just walking through Rogers Park.