Sunday, February 20, 2000

Troupe's 'Taming of the Shrew' fun, well-acted, wonderfully new

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The last thing you expect from The Taming of the Shrew are quiet pleasures, especially from a Shrew set in the rootin' tootin' Old West.

        But that's what director Barbara Pinolini delivers for Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. Her Shrew is smart and romantic and satisfyingly modern in its thinking. The legendary battle of the sexes between Petruchio and Kate play as an agreeable game between two intelligent, nicely dimensioned, likable people, who no doubt are going to live happily ever after.

        Onto a Western town set that could be straight out of Gunsmoke but is, in fact, Padua, stomps Lesley Bevan's delight of a Kate. She's an angry and confused tomboy, unhappy with the acute femininity of her sister Bianca (Corinne Mohlenhoff) and the stupid men (starting with her loving father) who don't have the gumption to take on her vastly superior self.

Super Petruchio
        Enter city slicker Petruchio, come to “wived wealthily (if wealthily than happily).” Jeremy Dubin is not your typical boisterous, bombastic Petruchio. Think Billy Crystal, but shorter — fully half-a-head shorter than Ms. Bevan. He's a bantam weight who rules his roost with brains, humor, good sense and self-confidence oozing from every cell.

        Debate about sexism and political correctness does not apply to this Shrew. In this thinking-woman's approach to Shrew, Ms. Bevan and Mr. Dubin are completely adorable and we can unashamedly root for them.

        Meanwhile, Joe Verciglio displays high wattage charm as the rich guy suitor who wins fair Bianca by switching roles with his servant, Tonto-like Giles Davies. As the Indian sidekick, Mr. Davies is as smart and more urbane than anybody else on stage.

        There's terrific support from Brian Isaac Phillips, who has spent most of this season hidden in the educational touring shows (too bad for grown-up audiences!) and Keland Scher in another servant role.

        Marni Penning does a great job of outfitting the ensemble as Western stock characters. The costumes are a laugh-out-loud, ongoing sight gag that play off Ms. Pinolini's own clever flourishes.

        One of the best is having Kate's beleaguered pop, Baptista (Andy Gaukel), turning to his guitar and song when pushed to the edge by his willful daughter.

        A peculiarity that sits almost at the subconscious level is that when you dress people up like cowboys, you're inviting the expectation of action. Cowboys aren't talkers, they're do-ers.

        But Todd Edwards' nifty Western street set eats into the festival's already small playing area and doesn't leave them much room to roam. Despite the waving of an occasional six-shooter, the company's boundless energy feels a little confined.

Silence the laugh track
        The opening night performance on Thursday was marred during the first act by a distracting live laugh track provided by staffer Ms. Penning.

        (If somebody slipped them a hint during intermission, thank you. Next go to Ensemble Theatre and tell them the same thing. This is an epidemic problem on opening nights.)

        The in-house cheering section did more harm than good as they constantly broke our concentration on a directorial concept and lots of subtle comic byplay that deserved attention.

        The Taming of the Shrew, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St. 381-2273.


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