There is an endless banquet of enticing plays at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival, but though it can be as difficult to decide just where to go as to choose between two favourite kinds of ice cream when you are only allowed one, the Shakespeare Bash’d production of The Taming of the Shrew should earn a place toward the top of the menu.
Despite having to deal with the Fringe’s insistence that productions be no more than 90 minutes long, which causes some problems, Shakespeare Bash’d has succeeded in creating an energising and enticing show that looks back to the very beginnings of English theatre. Shakespeare would have recognised the possibilities and the difficulties of performing in a bar where actors brush against audience as they make their entrances and said audience is busy getting another beer. (Admittedly, the atmosphere was far less raucous than it would have been in the 1590s, with--so far as I could tell--no prostitutes soliciting and no catcalls to the actors, though there were the occasional wolf-whistles at some of the men on stage.)
Going back to the basics, presented in a bare white square with few props beyond the required stools and a couple of sandwiches, this Taming depends entirely on the verbal and physical brio of its actors. They pull it off, too, offering a useful reminder that actors are the only essential in theatre – though Charlotte Robertson’s costume designs help. Not set in any particular era, the clothing quickly defines the characters: the playboy-ish Hortensio, all white shirt, tight trousers and gelled hair; old Gremio in his sunglasses, with loud vest and cap; Baptista in his open shirt and gold chain; Bianca and Katherina with their Princess Kate fascinators; the beatnik Pedant who pretends to be Vincentio; Lucentio disguising himself as the ultimate nerd with glasses, vest and tie; Tranio decking himself in Lucentio’s finery, leather vest and small red cape. There is nothing subtle in these costumes, nor in the performances: though succeeding in not being too over-the-top, the actors milk every moment they have, and certainly carry the audience with them.
This is not to say that the play is treated as pure farce, however. Though there is a certain stylisation to the production in the actors’ physical acting, with much posing, clownish gesticulation, and sometimes cartoonish movements (particularly from Ellen Hurley as Biondella and David Ross as Grumio) and is aimed purely at laughter – never more so than in Tranio (Jesse Griffiths), Biondella and the Pedant’s (Ross again) desperate attempt to sneak off at the moment when all disguises fall – there are clear signs of an attempt to create a richer, more serious effect for the coming-together of Petruchio and Katherina. When at the end of Kate’s speech on husbands, she offers her hand for Petruchio to place his foot on, he instead takes it in his own hand and kisses it – an affecting moment, clearly suggesting that the two have earned each other’s respect. This is where the time constraints play against the production: the cuts to the scenes in Petruchio’s house leave no time for the development of this aspect of their relationship, which remains a mere sketch at best. Still, what they are aiming for seems clear, and it is a relief to find a production that neither treats Shrew as little more than a Fawlty Towers sketch nor turns it into a dreary and depressing commentary on the oppression of women. It is an interesting choice as well that the men at times seem somewhat uncomfortable during Kate’s speech.
There are some wonderful details among the performances as well. Sophia Fabiili’s minx of a Bianca is magnificent as she apes her father behind his back when he berates Katherina. Clearly the young lady is fully aware that she has the old man wrapped around her little finger. Kelly Penner, as a possibly gay Hortensio, is as wonderful in his foppishness as in his ridiculous slim fake moustache when he poses as a music teacher. (Why he is forever embracing Grumio is a bit of a mystery; the idea of Hortensio as actually gay is enticing, but no explanation for his fondness for Petruchio’s servant is provided.) Andy Cockburn provides a Lucentio who is both high-pitched nerd and an accomplished lecher; his transformation from one to the other in the teaching scene is one of the highlights of the evening. David Ross offers some excellent physical comedy, though he is rather loud, particularly for so small a performance space. Jesse Griffiths is a magnificent Tranio, especially as he apes the nobility. But it is Milan Malisic as Gremio who steals the show every time he opens his mouth, and sometimes when he doesn’t. With his protuberant belly (or at least the protuberant pillow shoved under his shirt), foldable walking-stick, dark glasses, curious accent, and the wild pelvic gyrations that accompany his every mention of either Bianca or of his own riches, he is a magnificent creation.
As Petruchio and Katherina, James Wallis and Julia Nish-Lapidus suffer somewhat from the scene-stealing antics of the smaller roles. As the only two actors called upon for moments of seriousness, it can be difficult to achieve those moments while the audience is still laughing at what has gone before, and they do not completely carry it off. Nish-Lapidus seems slightly hesitant before launching into her final speech. They manage well, however, even if they are not as manic as they might be to match the energy level of the other performers, and their kisses in the street, as well as their final one, are truly affecting. Along with the rest of the cast, they are also very good at getting across some of the more obscure jokes. (That being said, it is past time that editors of the play began recognising that the pronunciation of ‘Kate’ in the 16th century was ‘Kat’, and hence restore the whole series of cat jokes to the wooing scene.) It’s not that their performances aren’t good, it’s rather that the whole ensemble is at a high level and has recognised that Shakespeare’s plays are company pieces. It is one of the trade-offs made in many Shakespeare plays – Macbeth is likely the best example – that when the smaller parts are given their due the major ones are somewhat diminished. Wallis and Nish-Lapidus do not dominate the play, but then they are not meant to.
Two minor quibbles remain: one is that instead of having Gremio’s report of the wedding, which is admittedly tedious, the wedding is heard offstage over Lucentio and Tranio’s conversation, obliterating most of the latter. The second concerns the Induction: while kept, it is cut to shreds, and audience members who do not know the play are likely to be completely confused, especially as it is never clear whether Christopher Sly (director Eric Double) is actually a lord or not. It might have been preferable to omit it altogether.
Despite this, this is overall an extremely fine production, and one well-worth catching. One final matter of note: on opening night, while knocking at Lucentio’s gate, David Ross’s Vincentio succeeded in breaking a pane of glass in the Victory Café’s door. It says much for the professionalism of the actors that the show continued nevertheless, for all that it was clear that Milan Malisic, as the Pedant, was having a very hard time not laughing as he spoke the line ‘What’s he that knocks as he would beat down the gate?’ I am given to understand that this instance of property damage is not scheduled to be reproduced in subsequent performances.
A word to the wise: the Victory Café is a tiny venue, with seating for only 50 audience members. It is advisable therefore to attempt to purchase one of the 25 advance tickets, or to arrive well in advance of the start of the show to get a ticket. Let it also be noted that the Toronto Fringe is extremely strict about not allowing anyone to enter the venue so much as a minute past opening time. I should also report that the bartending duties of the Café’s staff were accomplished with admirable discretion over the course of the play.