Downtown Escondido on a warm summer Friday night is hopping with people of all ages casually dressed in shorts and jeans. Shops and art galleries are brightly lit; restaurants are full and street musicians from electric to acoustic are scattered along Grand Avenue. Teenagers hang out as cars from days gone by cruise the avenue for the “Cruisin’ Grand” event that happens every Friday night from April through September. Many of the pre-1970s hotrods, classics, antiques and customs are parked in front of Patio Playhouse Community Theatre.
Patio Playhouse’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, produced by Gwyn Evert and directed by Christa Lynn Sherman, is appropriately set in 1950s Los Angeles. What better night to see a fifties-themed production with classic cars on the streets to set the mood?
While actors set the stage, three ladies in flattering long skirts and sweaters file out with chairs and newspapers in hand. They line up the chairs to sit and read the headlines regarding Baptista. The threesome exit as Stephen Rowe’s Lucentio with a camera in hand and Matthew Brehm’s Tranio, Lucentio’s servant, hang out on a maroon, velvet sofa in Baptista’s television studio. The two suitors listen as Baptista offers a handsome dowry for the hand of his daughter, Katherina the shrew. Brehm has a nasally accent similar to Jon Lovitz, and he keeps the tone light. The clean-cut Rowe is charming as he falls in love with Catherine Callicott’s demure Bianca, Baptista’s younger daughter. Callicott has warm eyes, a flirtatious smile, smooth skin and a tiny waist that embodies the girl next door.
But the main story is about Katherina, played by PJ Anbey, who writes the word “Shrew” in large black capital letters on a photo of herself on the wall. Anbey has a sour attitude. How else should she act while her father is trying to bribe a man to marry her? This Kate has no fear onstage. She is loud and protests with screams. Anbey has appeared in shows at other local theatres, such as New Village Arts and PowPAC. She also starred in the Emmy-award winning television show Starting Over. Anbey is the opposite of her petite sister Bianca, with a buxom figure and arched eyebrows over her chocolaty brown eyes that say, “Come hither if you dare.”
Her father, Baptista, played by F. Neha Curtiss, is in a power suit and tie, always with a cigar in his right hand between his middle and ring fingers, sporting slicked back hair in a pony tail and looking like a mafia boss while trying to convince Frank Guttiere’s Hortensio and Steve Rich’s Gremio to marry Katherina in an “offer they can’t refuse” sort of way.
Of course, everyone has their eyes on Bianca, the one they can’t have until Katherina is married. Rowe’s Lucentio is entertaining as he plots with Tranio to find a suitor for Katherina so that he can have that pretty little girl next door.
Christopher De Armond’s Petruchio speaks directly to the audience with a southern accent. Perhaps he is a transplant in L.A.? It is a battle of the sexes as Armond and Anbey get physical onstage. Armond tries to manhandle Anbey, but she stomps on the brute’s foot, making this pair all the more brutal to match.
On a lighter side, one of the scenes is cleverly set up like The Dating Game, here called “Marry a Minola,” with Baptista as the host and the hopefuls in chairs ready to win their prize.
Grant Gelvin’s Grumio is funny as he walks onstage in a Native American headdress, wearing a straight face as he tells the audience and Isabella, played by Maleia Gruber in a court jester sort of way, a story about Katherina and Petruchio on horseback going through Death Valley. This scene is one of the more amusing in the production.
Music by Sinatra and other artists, along with Chevrolet and "Give a Hoot. Don't Pollute" commercials can be heard in the background. Costumes by Nicole Fleuret are classic not trendy. Sweaters, suits and long skirts with stockings and heels are worn rather than poodle skirts, saddle shoes and scarves. Set design by Patrick McBride incorporates movable walls painted with blue skies and palm trees. Trellises are decorated for the game show with a curtain hanging over a trellis that reads, “Marry a Minola.” For the Las Vegas wedding, a tacky trellis is decorated with hanging playing cards.
This is director Sherman’s first full run adult theatre production. In her early days, she was on the stage at Patio Playhouse in a youth theatre production. She also directed Hark! The Teen Angels Sing as a high school freshman. Sherman received a directing degree from Marymount Manhattan College and now returns to Patio Playhouse some twelve years later.
In the last scene, Anbey speaks directly to the audience for her monologue, trying to convince the women to obediently bend to the will of the men. ‘Tis a pity Kate seems to have been beaten into submission. In the end, because Anbey portrays Kate seriously, the question begs, don’t women deserve equality? Is Shakespeare a male chauvinist pig, or did he mean this play to be in jest? Maybe presenting The Taming of the Shrew like the television show Everybody Loves Raymond would be more palatable. Still, it is appropriate to set this particular production of Shrew in the 1950s when women were typically seen as housewives.
Taming of the Shrew runs September 11 - October 4 at Patio Playhouse, 201 East Grand Avenue, Suite 1D, Escondido, CA 92030. Information can be found at http://www.patioplayhouse.com/