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Nashville Scene Character Assassination

A Shrew that's way too tame.

By Larry Adams

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  "Brush up your Shakespeare," advises one of the songs from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, "and they'll all kowtow!" Nashville audiences, however, don't pay such empty obeisance to a cultural icon; they really like Shakespeare. Just ask any of Nashville's theatrical companies, and they'll agree--Shakespeare is good for the bottom line. Chaffin's Barn, for instance, experienced sold-out houses for its production of Romeo and Juliet earlier this year, and last summer 15,000 people came out to see Nashville Shakespeare Festival's production of Julius Caesar at Centennial Park.

By and large, Nashvillians also like their Shakespeare straight. Local theatergoers criticized the NSF's Julius Caesar for casting a female in the role of Cassius. Even so, it's still rare for a local company to make a major mistake in the production concept for one of Shakespeare's plays. Yet such is the case with the NSF's current production, Taming of the Shrew.

The Taming of the Shrew currently running in Centennial Park is by no means bad. This staging of Shakespeare's battle of the sexes between strong-willed Kate and her suitor Petruchio has too much good going for it to be considered anything close to a failure. At the top of the list of this production's strengths is Brian Russell's solid performance as Gremio, the fond old suitor to Kate's sister Bianca. Keeping well within the commedia dell'arte tradition in which this character was conceived, Russell invests the role with some of the funniest running gags of the evening. He winces anytime someone shakes his hand or touches one of his joints, but he makes his crotchety-old-man act even funnier by humming disco tunes under his breath.

Russell's way with the Shakespearean "line" provides an excellent example of how American performers should go about constructing personae from British materials. This Gremio speaks with a slightly courtly, slightly country American accent that makes his dialogue fully understandable while staying true to the character's classic nature. The scene in which Russell describes the wedding of Kate and Petruchio had the audience in stitches.

Two minor performances prove once again that there are no small roles. David Whitley's Biondello, servant to one of Bianca's suitors, and Wendi Lowery's Grumio, servant to Petruchio, both lit up the stage every time they came on. Even their entrances sent titters through the audience. Lowery was particularly good at making her lines understandable in the scenes in which Kate is trying to figure out the character of the man with whom she has been mated.

Ironically, it is Kate herself who proves most problematic in this production. In a few scenes, she rails and carries on as shrewishly as might be expected, but most of the time, it appears that director Brian Clancy has attempted to soften and modernize Kate by having Denice Hicks play her as if she were terminally bewildered. This befuddlement has its proper place in certain scenes, but as the defining character element, it simply creates problems. Even with the differences between gender politics in Shakespeare's time and in our own, it makes no sense for a merely bewildered Kate to end the play as she does, with a paean to woman's subservience that would make even St. Paul gag.

Rituals of courtship Denice Hicks takes a bite out of Ray Thornton in Nashville Shakespeare Festival's production of Taming of the Shrew

The fact is that Kate in her extreme shrewishness is sick--literally. Kate is choleric, a condition thought to have been caused by an excess of bile; this explains her irascibility, heated temper, and great passion. Kate is so choleric, in fact, that she's even more distempered than would have been considered proper for a man of the era. Petruchio's taming of her choleric temper, right down to his instructions to Grumio for a bile-reducing diet, are an attempt to bring her back to health. The "humor" here is the contrast between the choleric Kate and the calm Kate, but without this great contrast, the comedy is left with a big hole.

It's a hole that affects everyone else in the play. Ray Thornton's Petruchio never displays the wished-for eccentricities, Ken Thompson as Kate's father Baptista never appears truly wounded by his daughter's antics, and Amy Yell as Bianca never effectively provides a foil for her sister's outlandish behavior. That's because Kate doesn't behave outlandishly enough.

In addition to the problems with characterization, the actors also appear to have trouble projecting their lines. There were no microphones during Shakespeare's time, yet Elizabethan actors had no problem making themselves heard in an even larger space than the one afforded by the Centennial Park Bandshell. Today, we have microphones, but the sound system provided nothing but trouble at the performance I attended. I say pull the plug and let the actors use the natural amplification of projection.

The technical problems can doubtless be worked out during the play's run. But the larger problem--the interpretation of Kate--probably isn't going to change. As long as Hicks continues to underplay her role, the whole play will feel somehow incomplete. Even with the "humorous" problems of this Shrew, it's still a production worth attending. Some of the performances are outstanding--and it does give you the chance to "brush up your Shakespeare" without kowtowing.

Taming of the Shrew continues 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights through Sept. 6. The Nashville Shakespeare Festival is also presenting an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince on Thursday and Sunday nights. For more information phone, Metro Parks at 615-862-8400.

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