On the boardwalk ... down by the sea

The problem with "The Taming of the Shrew" in our not yet post-feminist world is the notion of "taming" women, especially as encapsulated in that speech at the end. Like the casual anti-Semitism of the young swells in "The Merchant of Venice," the apparent sexism of this early Shakespeare comedy sets audiences to laughing through clenched teeth.

The buoyant production of "Shrew" that kicked off the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's season Friday night in the Angus Bowmer Theatre was so good-natured and high-spirited that most sets of teeth went largely unclenched right up to Katherine's famous speech advising women to subordinate themselves to their husbands in the manner of a subject to a prince.

Director David Ivers has done away with the Christopher Sly frame story and set Padua as a boardwalk town. The Sly story has parallels to the Shrew story that point to several of its themes. But the direction and playing here are strong enough that we can get to the heart of matters without any help from the drunken tinker.

Katherine's father runs Baptista's, a cheesy surf-side emporium with neon-esque lights, popcorn and cotton candy. A live combo on the roof (guitar, acoustic bass, drums, occasional mandolin) plays rockabilly and a smattering of jazzy riffs commenting on the action. The Ferris wheel of an amusement park looms in the background.

A large video screen stage right says "Welcome to Padua" and is used throughout for comic projections that amplify the action. At one point it provides the sing-along words to a heavy-metal tune being performed on stage: "Hey, nonny nonny ... "

That spirit pervades the production. There is a lot of physicality and some well-timed pregnant pauses. The playing is extremely broad. But the comedy of "Shrew" has always edged the line of farce, and in the case of the Bianca subplot and the various disguised suitors, crossed it. Ivers embraces that.

The lute that Katherine (Nell Geisslinger) breaks over the head of Petruchio's pal Hortensio (Jeremy Peter Johnson) in Act Two has here become a guitar, which Hortensio emerges wearing round his neck. When Petruchio (Ted Deasy) arrives very late for his wedding to Kate, it's on a Harley-Davidson, in an outfit best described as Aeneas meets Evel Knievel. A funny speech about the motorcycle is draped in Shakespearean devices.

Petruchio whisks Kate away without staying for the banquet, on the back of his hog, of course, and Geisslinger spends the middle part of the play looking quite fetching in disheveled hair and a grimy wedding gown.

Even aside from any question of political correctness, Kate's arc often troubles audiences. What kind of legendarily ill-tempered shrew can be "tamed" with such relative ease? When a sleeve comes off to reveal a heavily tattooed arm, we suspect there's more to her than meets the eye. And the characters around are so annoying the question doesn't arise.

With a spoiled phony like Bianca (Royer Bockus) for a sister and an old fool like Baptista (Robert Vincent Frank) for a father, we'd be hell on wheels too. She makes us of think of an angry teenager and, indeed, with Baptista doting on Bianca, Kate would have been a hurt, resentful child.

We know this person. She's using a learned but unconscious strategy of keeping people at arm's length to avoid being hurt. Of course, this interpretation could still be construed as offensive to feminist sensibilities (all she needs is a good man?). But it's canny psychology by Shakespeare.

After all, it's a comedy. And Petruchio is no Neanderthal. Deasy, a tall, lanky man with Elvis hair and a frock coat, begins as an adventurer seeking to "wive it wealthily." But as the sexual tension between them builds, he begins to fall in love with Kate. By the time he begs (and that's the right word) Kate for a kiss in the street, the process is nearly complete. The kiss rocks her world, too.

Bockus's Bianca (whose name gets comically confused with a popular breath spray) is an archetypal dumb blonde. It's an interesting take on the character that provides some easy humor, especially in her interactions with her favored suitor, Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr). And it makes her a good fit with the main characters involved in the subplot, most of whom are stock types descended from Roman comedy through the Commedia Dell' Arte.

But it fails to convey one of the play's important ironies. Just as we see that the bitchy Kate is actually a sweetheart, we should see that the apparently sweet Bianca is really a spoiled brat. We know the type.

What are we to make of Kate's final speech urging submissiveness on women? Does the playwright who created Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind and Juliet really want to keep women barefoot and pregnant? Of course not, but the problem is always how to reconcile that speech with a strong Shakespearean heroine.

Geisslinger and Ivers have found a powerful, surprisingly simple answer that I won't reveal here, but it's quite a stroke. In the end we feel that Petruchio and Kate will have their happily ever after as equals. Lucentio and Bianca are another matter.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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