Last night, I took in the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Taming of the Shrew at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The production, like most I’ve seen by the festival, was first-rate, reminding me once again how vital the festival and the theater are in Houston’s cultural scene.
As an essay in my battered Complete Works makes clear, this is one of the Bard’s more troublesome plays, in light of current attitudes. The “Shrew” of the title is Katherina, the unpleasant elder daughter of a rich Paduan. (In the “dramatis personae,” Will even identifies her as “Katherine, a shrew.”) The charming scoundrel Petruchio sets out to marry her for her dowry with the assurance that he will “tame” her of her shrill and often violent temper.
The comedy, written in the early 1590s, obviously doesn’t fall within the mores of our presumably more enlightened era. In the essay, Dorothy McMillian of the University of Glasgow points out that a century ago, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw “famously registered shame at the ‘lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth,'” referring to Katherine’s climactic speech in which she bends her will to her new husband’s.
McMillian points out that in an attempt to get past these concerns, most modern productions of Shrew emphasize its farcical elements so audiences don’t take it as seriously. That’s precisely the tack director Jack Young takes at the Houston Shakespeare Festival, to great effect.
Often, the festival recasts a play in a more modern setting. Young (who also plays villainous Iago in the festival’s alternating production of Othello — maybe there’s a connection there) presents Shrew in a modern pop culture world of indeterminate time, taking in elements from 50’s sock hops to game shows to The Godfather. The spectacular first meeting of Petrucio and Katherine is cast as a literal boxing match, complete with referees.
The overall effect is completely entertaining. The performances, especially by leads Luke Thomas Eddy and Tracie Thomason (who is also portraying Desdemona in Othello, quite a feat), are terrific, as are the simple and sometimes kitschy sets. [My friend and sometime collaborator Pin Lim shot photos of the production, which you can view here.]
According to the festival’s website, Shrew was the first HSF play directed by founder Sidney Berger in 1975. Berger, then director of the University of Houston School of Theater, created the festival to bring the Bard and theater free to all Houstonians.
Since then, the festival has grown tremendously and is regarded as one of the premier such events in the country. Berger, who recently retired from UH (this is the first year that he is not a director of one of the festival’s plays), was also very involved in the restoration of the Old Globe theater in London.
The festival is also one of the highlights of the annual season at Miller Outdoor Theater, which presents a wide range of free entertainment to people from the greater Houston area. It’s one of the best things we’ve got going.
UPDATE: Since I first posted this, I’ve also seen the HSF’s production of Othello, directed by Leah Gardiner — again excellent, perhaps the best live version I’ve seen. Seth Gilliam (who happens to be one of the stars of The Wire, one of the best television shows in recent memory) is both extremely charismatic and tragically foolish as the Moorish general bedeviled by the villainous Iago (a deliciously evil turn by Jack Young). And Tracie Thomason brings profound empathy and pathos to the role of Desdemona, a complete reversal of her Kate in Shrew. [See Pin Lim’s photos here.]
I should also have mentioned that the festival is now under the aegis of a new artistic director, UH’s Steven W. Wallace, inheriting the mantle from Sidney Berger. In his first year, Wallace has brought some new energy to the festival, including an elegantly designed logo, seen in banners along the theater walkways and projected on its outer walls. I also especially enjoyed the “before-play” performances by the student actors, including a silent version of Othello before the main attraction. Good show, indeed.
Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.