BITCH, FISHWIFE, SCOLD, battle axe — it seems there's never a failure of imagination when it comes to coining words for females of a somewhat ill humor. Meanwhile, men with similarly unpleasant attitudes tend to be described as aggressive, focused, or not suffering fools gladly.
Hey, they're all potential assholes, and one of the most famous among them is the redoubtable Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, now being produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival beside the lagoon at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. One of Shakespeare's more delightful comedies, Shrew is packed with more false identities than a college bar at closing time. And this version is a delicious romp from start to finish, highlighted by two excellent performances in the lead roles.
Rich old Baptista has two daughters, the smiling and obsequious Bianca and, of course, Katherina, a wildcat in fine gowns and a woman who bruises with both words and fists. Bianca has suitors lined up from all over Padua but, as the elder sister, Kate has to be hitched first. Trouble is, she views most men as targets for her wrath, not as potential life partners.
Enter Petruchio, a gentleman from Verona brimming with self-confidence and a lusty desire for the wealth that Kate could bring to a marriage through her dowry. Petruchio assures the competitors for Bianca's hand that he will win Kate over so that the path will be clear for them to pursue their amorous schemes.
The introduction to this play within a play is entertaining thanks to Geoffrey Darling, whose woozy presence as the drunk tinker Christopher Sly sets up the wacky events to come. A passing lord (Scott Shriner) spies the passed-out Sly and decides to dress him up as a nobleman, for sport, and present him a show.
And quite a show he gets, especially when Lara Knox is onstage as Kate. Dark eyes flashing, she is a formidable force, making it more than understandable why normal men quake when she approaches. And Andrew Cruse is just as magnetic as Petruchio, virtually crooning his speeches with macho brio, spraying testosterone in every direction.
Their first scene together, when they use puns and wordplay as rapiers to fence with one another, is like a Shakespearean version of an MMA cage match. You could swear sparks flash as each tries to gain the upper hand but eventually fights to a draw.
Meanwhile, would-be Bianca lovers Lucentio (Brian McNally) and Hortensio (Jeremy Jenkins) disguise themselves as teachers to get near the girl of their dreams. And even Tranio (Joe Pine), Lucentio's servant, changes his identity and takes part. Much of the hilarity stems from these fellows as they contort themselves to please beauteous Bianca (a lovely but still-spirited Tess Burgler).
But the taming begins after Petruchio and Kate's hastily arranged marriage, when he begins to kill her with kindness. He denies her food and sleep for all manner of trumped-up "loving" reasons, and Cruse and Knox milk these juicy scenes for every chuckle imaginable. Even the most feminist observer can understand why she eventually gives in to this stubborn gadfly.
Many of the smaller roles are polished to a gleam, including Benjamin Fortin as the irritating, literal-minded servant Biondello and Tom Stephan as Lucentio's father Vincentio. The latter is particularly amusing when confronted on the road by Petruchio and Kate; Petruchio insists that the baffled Vincentio is a woman, just to force Kate to agree and toe the line. And although Henry C. Bishop seems a bit soft on lines at times, he triggers a number of laughs as Gremio, an elderly suitor of Bianca.
Once again, director Terry Burgler shows why he is a master at mounting Shakespeare's works, filling the stage with lively characterizations and an irrepressible sense of fun. Although Kate's submissive concluding speech grates against our ears and values today ("I am ashamed that women are so simple, to offer war when they should kneel for peace."), it fits the era and at least reminds us how far we've come.
Ohio Shakespeare Festival productions begin at 8 p.m., but it's always worthwhile to arrive early, check out the enchanting grounds, and enjoy the pre-show entertainment provided by younger cast members.
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