The problem with performing Shakespeare--plain, English-accented, straight-out-of-the-Riverside Shakespeare--is that, more likely than not, the audience will find it boring. But this is not necessarily because of content, acting or even directing. It is simply because it has already been done so many times before. Performing "Shakespeare-in-the-yard" has become so cliched that the Class of 1999 made the phrase itself the title of their Freshman Musical. However, add some modern twists, funky costumes and characters with character, and you've got a hit as big as Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet"--or, on a more local scale, last spring's production of "As You Like It."
So this summer, Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theater decides to end their eclectic season with one of Bill's more controversial works, "The Taming of the Shrew." But the big question remains: is this production yet another bland, unadventurous side dish on the already-full plate of generic Shakespearean theater, or does it break through the gelatin mold as the summer's most delectable new entree?
The answer, surprisingly, is both. Although the zany prologue begins the production on a hysterical note, that wonderful craziness begins to wither away early into the actual play. Nearly everyone dons period costumes after the prologue, which makes Kate's t-shirt and jeans and Petruchio's black vinyl pants look out of place rather than creative. The lighting, while fine for some moments, misses its mark most of the time, and hides from the audience some of the most gifted and expressive actors this school has to offer. The set is adequate, but nothing special.
What does shine through, however, is the actors' energy and the fast-paced humor racing through the show, even if it is mainly slapstick. The production is worth seeing for the prologue alone--Erik Amblad '99 and Chuck O'Toole '97 in particular draw screams of laughter from the audience with their girlish giggles. Everyone's costumes are a hoot, from the prologue's two-sizes-too-small jogging suits to the servants' funky get-ups. Again, once the actual story begins, some of the more original artistic concepts are sacrificed in favor of both Shakespearean traditions and basic silliness. But even these potentially fatal flaws are handled so charmingly by the cast that one can't help enjoying the somewhat misogynistic parade o' laughs unfolding onstage.
The cast itself is chock-full of dynamic players. Amblad and O'Toole, as Petruchio/the Lord-ette and Hortensio/the first Hunter-ette, respectively, show great versatility as actors in their shift from effeminate pranksters to clever, sophisticated noblemen. Jesse Hawkes's cane-waving, unexpectedly spry Gremio stands out as one of the show's best comic touches, as do the hilarious antics of Grumio (Doug Miller) and Biondello (Andrew Mandel '00, a Crimson editor). Even Tranio, played by Adam Green '99, though not as facially expressive as the rest of the cast, has good comic timing and blends in well with the show's goofy charm. Both Marisa Echeverria '00 (Katherina) and Jennifer Neale (Bianca) give strong performances--Echeverria bringing out her mercurial character's passion and sincerity, Neale the docile sister's mixture of cleverness and sweetness.
However, even these extremely talented performers cannot completely hide the fact that "The Taming of the Shrew," while funny, is a problematic play. The conclusion is especially disturbing: although Kate is preaching to her fellow women about the importance of respecting one's husband, the shadowy lighting and ominous music create a mood quite opposite of her seemingly happy words. Likewise, the pratfalls and punches throughout the production cannot disguise the fact that it is, for the most part, unimaginative Shakespeare.
Fortunately, even its conventionality doesn't keep this "Shrew" from being an amusing play overall. With a great cast, good direction and lots of energy, this production is guaranteed to make even the most cynical critic laugh. It may not have any lasting artistic merit other than that of sheer entertainment. But every so often, that's all you really need.