Which one is Kate?
That is the sort of question you might find yourself asking if you take in Stage West's production of the William Shakespeare comedy The Taming of the Shrew, which the company is presenting with only five actors.
Actually, Kate (Allison Pistorius) is pretty easy to keep track of, because Pistorius is so vibrant and engaging in her role of the beautiful, but sharp-tongued, older sister who must be married off. But with a lot of the other characters -- good luck.
Because not only do the actors play multiple parts in this modern dress production, some of the play's 20-plus characters are also played by multiple actors.
Take one scene in particular, where a character is initially portrayed by Chris Hury, who is great in his primary role as Kate's would-be tamer, Petruccio. In the scene, he delivers the Pedant (an innocent bystander who is recruited to masquerade as another character) with a Paul Lynde impersonation.
That is not as far out of bounds it may sound. The actors in this show adopt a variety of cartoon-esque voices to try to distinguish their characters from one another (most of which are a lot more annoying than Hury's Lynde impersonation). And the zany touches such as this are well matched to the odd, garish costuming credited to Michael Robinson and the Costume Shoppe, which suggests no particular time or place other than recent.
Then, however, the scene calls for Hury to take care of other business, so the role is taken over by another actor (Jake Buchanan, whose main part is Lucentio). We know he is the Pedant, though, because he is wearing the jacket and scarf Hury just took off. But his Lynde impersonation is not nearly so good as Hury's.
Are you with me so far?
You better be, because these mid-scene costume and character changes go on for a grueling 2 hours and 55 minutes. There are even some points where actors exchange dialogue with themselves.
Where most Shakespearean productions try to trim the Bard to accommodate modern times and schedules, director Jim Covault has chosen to make his version of this comedy longer by adding an opening section (quaintly called an "induction" in some editions of the play) that sets up the action as a play within a play. This part is almost always cut, and it is easy to understand why. It adds nothing except about 15 minutes of your life you will never get back.
The acting in this production, which is played on a stage that is bare save for a raised platform and a hat rack, is super. This cast, which is rounded out by Stage West business manager Mark Shum and Katherine Bourne, deserves awards just for keeping their parts straight. Hury and Pistorius are especially good and will make you wish you were seeing them in a traditional production of this comedy.
Modern dress and tricked-up productions of Shakespearean classics can be a lot of fun, and they emphasize the valid point that those ancient works still speak to us today. But all the busyness and forced exaggerations employed here take away a great deal more than they add. No audience should have to work so long and so hard (you not only have to pay close attention to not only who is wearing which hat, but also how they are wearing it, in order to know who's who, for example) to enjoy such a great work.