The excitement and camaraderie are palpable on opening night of the Hidden Room Theatre's "original practices" staging of The Taming of the Shrew. This is a gathering of Austin's acting fellowship, in the audience as well as within the company. Director Beth Burns and assistant director Stephanie Delk greet familiar faces; storyteller-actress Bernadette Nason serves the refreshments, and musician Jennifer Davis of the Baron's Men offers costume ball masks for sale at the concession stand.
After the house opens, the audience’s animation and anticipation are so great that one of the town's most appreciated Shakespeareans manages to spill his white wine in front of the seats on the south side. Director Beth Burns takes the mishap in good humor, going down on her knees with a towel, scrubbing to make sure the playing space is dry and safe.
One fellowship is assembled within the meeting hall of another, for Burns has obtained the gracious permission of a Masonic order to use its space in a historic downtown building to create a court theatre like that of Shakespeare's royals.
A consort of ten musicians led by Jennifer Davis provides period music with voice, recorder, stringed instruments and percussion, both before the play and at intervals throughout.
The Taming of the Shrew opens with an Induction or prologue, often abandoned today. An aristocrat returning from the hunt discovers the drunkard Christopher Sly passed out in the street. The lord and his serving men bring Sly into comfortable quarters. They fool him into believing that he is a great lord and they offer him the company of a wench, impersonated by Bartholomew, a male page. Sly wants to go to bed with his new lady, but agrees to the diversion of a pleasant comedy—the story of Katherina Minola and Petruchio.
By keeping the Induction and playing the cross-dressing masquerade to the hilt, Burns provides a subtle bit of irony. Big Robert Deike provides us with a Sly who's loud, sloppy and clownish. Justin Scalise, with wide eyes and snugged kerchief, is a tender young man in dire danger of some misdirected physical attention. Sly is the opposite of sly; Bartholomew is the opposite of a lord's lady; and the pleasant comedy will be the opposite of Sly's expectations ("Is not a comonty [comedy] a Christmas gambold, or a tumbling-trick?").
In this staging, Justin Farris as Petruchio is cheery, smart and decisive, unlike Christopher Sly. Ryan Crowder plays Kate as assured, justly indignant and handsomely feminine, unlike Scalise's Bartholomew. A modern audience intrigued by the "original practices" convention of males playing all female roles gets its giggles with Sly and Bartholomew the page, then settles into close attention to the familiar story. Crowder as Kate and Ryan Hamilton as sister Bianca play their roles without mockery or self-consciousness, and we accept them as those female characters.
Ryan Crowder deserves special applause. His Katherina is an intelligent woman, neglected and mispris'd by her father in favor of Hamilton's self-absorbed Bianca. Katherina is tart, rather than sour, and gradually we see her beginning to appreciate Petruchio's attentions.
Burns has attracted players with lots of experience in Shakespeare. Their delivery of the verse is vigorous, well paced and easy to grasp. This company features actors who've played recently with more than half dozen theatres across the Austin region, often in classical roles.
An "original practices" production reminds one that theatre is a participatory art—a pact of make believe between the players and their public. This hidden room offers essentially no scenery, other than chairs and a table carried on and off, as needed. Period costuming sets scenes and defines characters. The long hall, oriented east-west, features slightly raised platforms at either end and some massive, uncomfortable looking seats for dignitaries, used by the actors. The audience settles in ranks of ordinary seating along the length of the space. Action sweeps in from doors at the west end, while Deike as Christopher Sly presides and at times appears to drift into sleep in the throne at the opposite end.
Actors acknowledge the audience, frequently addressing them directly. For a time, Rommel Sulit as Tranio carries on a winking and waving flirtation with a woman seated to our right. Casey Weed, as one of Petruchio's serving men, entices a couple in the audience to waggle their fingers in imitation of crackling flames, and Brock England as Grumio happily warms his backside before them, to the amusement of all.
Among other favorites are yellow-jacketed Nathan Jerkins as the Induction's mocking nobleman and as Hortensio the doleful suitor; Benjamin Summers as suitor Lucentio, surprised to find himself outmaneuvered by his love Bianca, and Scot Friedman with a wide grin and later a deprecating grimace as the pedant who masquerades as Lucentio's father.
This evening performance uses only the incandescent lighting of the chandelier and wall sconces already installed in the hall. Kimberley Mead's photos of dress rehearsal are striking, but they have a deceptively bright quality to them. Some in the audience might have preferred some heretical use of theatrical lighting. A technical concession along these lines would have had costs and limitations, however, and the players would not have been free to use the full space. As it is, the spectators can see them equally well—or equally poorly—wherever in the space they’re acting.
Neither the director nor the company raises the modern issue of the misogyny of Shakespeare's plot. In agreeing to convene with them in their hidden room, the audience gives the bard license to remain part of his time. They listen, laugh, sympathize, and enjoy an evening of the ancient vintage.
The Taming of the Shrew runs April 29 – May 23, 2010 at The Hidden Room Theatre, 311 W. 7th Street, Austin, TX 78701. For more information call (512) 474-8497 or visit their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/light-the-torch/The-Hidden-Room/194783394867.