The Trinity Shakespeare Festival opened its fifth season on the TCU campus with a gorgeous and mostly satisfying production of the beloved comedy The Taming of the Shrew at the Hays Theatre on Thursday .
The strongest point of this production, and nearly all of the plays in this series also directed by TCU theater professor T.J. Walsh, is that the Bard is made to live and breathe in our times. The antiquated language of Shakespeare’s text falls off the stage like a conversation overheard on a street outside the theater. Walsh moves the time setting up to 1900 for this modern-dress production, and you have seldom seen a Shakespearean play wear its new clothes more comfortably.
This annual summer series has become something of repertory company in that nearly all of the actors are familiar to those who have attended in the past. And given the overall high quality of the acting, it is easy to see how that happened.
Some of the best performances in this show emerge from the supporting players. David Coffee as Grumio, servant of Petruchio (Chuck Huber), once again plays the clown and augments his part with effective vocalizing. One of the many anachronisms in the show is that Coffee begins and ends it by singing O Sole Mio.
One of the performances that could easily be overlooked because the role is so minor is that of Steven Pounders as Baptista Minola, father of the venomous Katherine (Trisha Miller) and the much more marry-able Bianca (Jenny Ledel). As a cafe owner in this updated version, he does not have much to do. But his few contributions are delivered with such unaffected ease that they are a joy to watch. And nearly all of the other minor players seem to follow his example well.
The look of this show is nothing short of dazzling. It features wonderfully atmospheric sets by Tristan Decker and fabulous period costumes by Aaron Patrick DeClerk.
And another detail that jumps out is something that is becoming a trademark of Walsh’s productions: the odd and quirky songs Shakespeare wrote into the piece come across as more musical and coherent than they do in most productions.
Where this staging may run into trouble for some patrons is in the leads.
Miller, a fine performer who, judging by this festival, is the only actress in America, makes a formidable Kate. She sends bit players scurrying with just a glare. Her take on the role is even a little meaner than usual, but it is certainly in bounds and solid by any measure. But for those of us who have been with Trinity from the start, seeing her in this role is like deja vu. The less jaded, however, will not have to deal with that and will probably enjoy her work just fine.
Huber’s take on Petruchio is a trickier issue. He plays Kate’s determined husband-to-be as something of a metrosexual whose manner and movements border on the effeminate. He is polite and deferential to his peers, and cowering and fearful in Kate’s presence. Where most Petruchios stomp and scowl, Huber’s tip-toes and smiles. This “nice guy” take on the character may work for some, but I found myself missing the swaggering, macho brute we more commonly see in this role. He is a lot funnier and has a lot more blood in his veins than the frosted cupcake Huber bakes up here.
There are also a number of strange details in the production that undermine the internal logic of the show. Why, for example, is Kate dressed as a man for most of the second act? There is no justification in the script or in the updating to explain that. And why, after the detailed description of Petruchio’s inappropriately ill-matched and worn out wedding clothes, does he then show up in a slightly ill-fitting, but otherwise well-coordinated, spiffy new military uniform that he has accessorized with a chic silk scarf?
So there are some question marks in this two-hour-and-45-minute production. But, on the whole, Walsh and the Bard carry the day. This is a spirited and delightfully clever rendering of this uproarious comedy that largely meets the high standards set by this festival.