In explaining his decision to stage The Old Globe Theatre’s 2003 Julius Caesar in modern dress, renowned director Dan Sullivan asked a local reporter if she’d ever been to a toga party. William Shakespeare’s plays, he said, weren’t meant to reflect world history so much as to reveal something about our own time and circumstance, good and bad.
Alas. The show, slathered in contemporary military garb and armaments, was savaged by one area critic as a monumental failure, its costume design (and everything else) reeking of slavish capitulation to Bill’s anti-war sensibilities, even as war is sometimes a justifiable last resort.
But modern costumes occasionally do work in Shakespeare, especially amid culturally exploitable settings. The Taming of the Shrew, Innermission Productions’ current entry, is one such play; its comic firebrand Katherina is an itinerant feminist for the ages, eventually giving in to her swashbuckling suitor Petruchio as her cooler sister Bianca sets an example.
While this show has its (mostly technical) problems, it makes its point through its modern treatments against an honest attempt at Bill-centric stylization. To that extent, today’s dress and setting (and a particularly interesting angle to Katherina) fuel the positive sides in the company’s considered efforts.
The upper-crust Minola family’s Katherina, whom you probably know as Kate, is nobody’s fool, least of all her own. “If I be waspish,” she sizzes at Petruchio, “best beware my sting,” and she backs up her words again and again, stinger firmly lodged in her tongue. Meanwhile, sister Bianca has two potential mates, but well-heeled dad Batista won’t allow her to marry until Kate has taken a man.
Marital prospects look bleak for both girls until Petruchio’s foray into reverse psychology — he claims he can’t bear the thought of Kate skarfing his crappy food or sleeping in his lumpy bed, depriving her of eats and sleep for days. From there, and to the astonishment of those around her, Kate submits and weds Petruchio, with Bianca quietly having the last laugh (by now, she’s eloped).
Petruchio, of course, was always in it for the money, an element that fuels this show’s modernist trappings like its costumes, its distant Manhattan skyline and its 20th-century music beds. For her part, Kate could be any jilted secretary or disillusioned divorcee; such is the theme’s pervasiveness, further inviting the wholesale updates. And director Carla Nell appears to understand a critical tenet in Shakespearean performance — her actors do their very best at playing only what’s on the page, with a basically uniform oratory the result.
There’s more to Kym Pappas’ Katherina than the maverick misandrist — as often as not, Pappas plays her fairly quietly and downcast, as if a distant hurtful memory sparks her disdain for men, Petruchio in particular. It’s an interesting contrast against Petruchio’s unbroken bombast, with Steve Froehlich striking a jut-jawed pose to his unrepentant character.
Sullivan’s godawful paint-by-numbers ploy… didn’t rethink Caesar so much as stencil him.
Jamie Channell Guzman’s smilingly unassuming Bianca has her choice of escapades, with suitors Gremio (here portrayed by Kira Vine as an exasperated gentlewoman) and Hortensio (who’s readably officious in Kevin Six’s hands). Joel Castellaw has a gladhanding Batista under control, and Wendy Savage steals the piece as Petruchio’s spunky servant Grumio. Everybody else is fine as assorted servants, gentlemen and merchants, as their oratory is in concert with everyone else’s.
But let’s talk about that tech for a second. In the first place, Diversionary Theatre’s black box is too small for this 17-member cast, which sometimes runs over itself in the wake of Nell’s blocking and Michael McKeon’s topheavy scene design. Nell’s soundscape is clever amid things like Duane Eddy’s brawny guitar and Elvis’ “Hard-Headed Woman,” but the music beds are too short-lived and volume deficient to serve as commentary. Alanna Serrano’s costumes designs and Dan Collins’ lights are hit and miss, failing to elicit the scene’s bigger pictures.
In fact, is this show anywhere definitive in its approach to Shakespeare? Absolutely not. Then again, neither was Sullivan’s godawful paint-by-numbers ploy, which didn’t rethink Caesar so much as stencil him. Meanwhile, Nell, Pappas and company give Shrew much of their best shot, and the resultant honesty reads past many of the deficiencies. It’s in no way a perfect piece, but the effort is enough to recommend it.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 12. The Taming of the Shrew runs through Aug. 27 at Diversionary Black Box, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $20. innermissionproductions.org, 619-324-8970.