Theater review: 'The Taming of the Shrew' at the Old Globe
The defining moment in The Old Globe's agreeable production of "The Taming of the Shrew" comes at the initial meeting of fetching leads Jonno Roberts and Emily Swallow, who bring real chemistry and imaginative empathy to William Shakespeare's problematic yet crowd-pleasing pair.
Before that, director Ron Daniels' open-air, venue-encompassing staging has been content to turn cast members loose on the audience before the performance, including attendees seated onstage. Following a well-executed, faintly extraneous opening dance (movement sequences courtesy of Tony Caligagan), the exposition transpires in straightforward fashion, wrapping the Bard's meter within a modern conversational attack that flirts with glibness, if not sitcom.
However, when Roberts' Petruchio and Swallow's Katherine see each other for the first time, they freeze, totally transfixed, and you can almost hear their heartstrings plunk. Despite the play's un-PC aspects -- Petruchio's diabolical degrading of his peevish bride, Katherine's ire at her powerless status giving way to submission -- a genuine, albeit unconventional romance is upon us, and it carries the show.
Early on, Swallow relies a tad heavily on her (often priceless) visual reactions, while Roberts comically points words and pauses to the edge of calculation. Yet, as the plot unfolds, this attractive duo reveals sensitively layered details of their evolving characters, to intelligent, hilarious and finally touching effect.
Daniels' take on "Shrew" neither ignores nor attempts to dissect its unsavory thematic elements, simply presenting them as a factor of Shakespeare's era while keeping one eye on our own. That goes double for the cast that surrounds Roberts and Swallow, everyone clearly enjoying their duties and on the same page.
Jay Whittaker's Lucentio, at first over-chirpy, achieves a winning wryness as he woos Bree Welch's tacitly cunning Bianca in disguise. Joseph Marcell's Gremio has old-school declamatory prowess, countered by Donald Carrier's agitated, hangdog Hortensio. Adrian Sparks as Baptista, father of the sisters, deftly balances affection and perturbation. Charles Janasz has a double-cameo ball as Lucentio's fake dad and Petruchio's servant Curtis.
All the menial characters register strongly, the group of loopy servant lads making Petruchio and Kate's wedding-night return arguably the play's funniest scene. Bruce Turk's deadpan Grumio and Jordan McArthur's adept Biondello score high marks throughout, and Michael Stewart Allen's wonderfully assured Tranio is a find.
Scenic designer Ralph Funicello keeps things bare, barring a repeated mini-coup involving trap door and table, and his and lighting designer Alan Burrett's handling of the giant neon title sign hanging upstage. That starkness, however, emphasizes Deirdre Clancy's brilliant costumes, which weave Elizabethan silhouettes, Day-Glo textures, color coordination and wild card motifs into a gorgeously quirky palette.
Not all the show's notions work as well, but even lowbrow bits, such as a horse costume that deposits droppings behind it, are in the spirit of good-natured bawdiness, and the various ad-libs throughout are tickling. If not quite a "Shrew" for the ages, this fun-filled reading nonetheless seems certain to fill the Festival Theatre for the summer's duration.
-- David C. Nichols
"The Taming of the Shrew," Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Contact theater for schedule. $29 to $78. (619) 234-5623. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Above: Emily Swallow as Katherine and Jonno Roberts as Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" at The Old Globe. Credit:Courtesy of The Old Globe.