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You may wonder, as you enter the carnival-light-festooned auditorium of the Lansburgh Theater, how a celebrated director like Adrian Hall will solve The Taming of the Shrew‘s various problems. The play’s unapologetic male chauvinism, irrelevant (and oft-excised) framing device, and underwritten minor characters have all proved vexing to other directors. It’s a natural concern.
But you probably won’t wonder whether Hall will be able to tell the story clearly or get his actors on and offstage or get laughs with low-comedy servants. You’ll assume a certain basic competence, in other words. Don’t.
The Shakespeare Theater’s Shrew is not just inept, it’s all but incoherent. Also ugly. And insensitive. And very nearly laughless. Patrons will know the show’s in trouble before the first scene is over, when head clown Floyd King minces around with baskets for breasts, scarlet wax lips, and a red chiffon nightgown, and barely gets chuckles. In the opening night’s first half, I counted three substantial audience laughs. In the second, I counted the lights dangling above my head (280, strung in 14 strands of 20). I’ve seen funnier Hamlets. Hell, I’ve seen funnier funerals.
Presumably, there was originally an underlying concept, but Hall apparently lost interest in Shrew when he got offered a better gig in mid-rehearsal—for the last two weeks, he’s been commuting to Broadway to salvage a troubled, $2.5 million production of On the Waterfront. The evening begins with shrewish Kate and her docile sister Bianca both played by males (Christopher Borg and Dallas Roberts) who are members of an Elizabethan theater troupe. The troupe is performing Shrew for a drunken lout named Christopher Sly (Jonathan Epstein), who is being tricked into thinking he’s a wealthy lord by a playful tavern mistress (Amy Van Nostrand). This is a slight twist on convention—Shakespeare named the trickster “A Lord”—but it’s conceivably a canny one, since in most contemporary productions, Sly dreams himself and a serving wench into the roles of shrew-tamer Petruchio and his reluctant bride Kate. Making the wench a tavern mistress could even the score a bit by providing a feminist counterpoint to the sexism of the play-within-a-play.
Alas, after Epstein is costumed as Petruchio and Van Nostrand as Kate, the director doesn’t bother to recast Bianca, allowing the strapping Roberts (who just finished a fine stint as King Ferdinand in Love’s Labor’s Lost) to portray the play’s paragon of sweet femininity. You keep waiting for a payoff. Will Bianca’s suitors discover the deception and think Kate’s a better catch? Will they discover the deception but turn out to be gay? Nah. There’s no point to the trick at all.
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That’s also true of such directorial touches as flying in a portrait of Petruchio’s dead father whenever the leading man mentions him. This happens three times in the evening’s first half, and not at all thereafter, so as a joke, it doesn’t connect to anything. During the second half, a duplicate portrait is hung above the door of Petruchio’s country home, though the first portrait still dangles within view, and both stay visible when the action moves to other locales. Makes no sense, you say? Well, it’s clarity itself compared with the director’s ordering some actors to enter and depart through the bottom half of double-latched half-doors while others reach the same offstage spots by clambering up ladders and over the top of what look like unfinished theatrical flats mounted on scaffolding. Eugene Lee, designer of such Broadway spectacles as Sweeney Todd (and the aforementioned On the Waterfront), is credited with having created the ugly, quasi-Brechtian monstrosity that serves as a set, but I’m choosing to disbelieve everything I read in the program. To do otherwise would force me to conclude that the lighting and other technical effects were done by professionals working at the very bottom of their craft, and I’d much prefer to think everything is just haphazard.
I could go on—about the violist (erstwhile Kate-portrayer Borg, still in skirts), who interrupts the proceedings briefly with unfunny, irrelevant miniconcerts; or the desultory dances, which halt the evening in its tracks for no discernible purpose; or the shouted “ha” and wan little waves to the crowd with which the hapless actors have been instructed to end their curtain call. But what’s the point? It’s customary to say in such circumstances that the performers are brave, even if a more natural impulse is to declare them out of their heads. By that token, Epstein qualifies as downright heroic because he actually manages to thread his way to a plausibly conflicted characterization of Petruchio. Van Nostrand, though undercut by staging that rarely allows her to seem feisty, let alone shrewish, also escapes relatively unscathed. Among their colleagues, Roberts’ Bianca and Jason Kravits’ dopey servant are the only ones who don’t end up flailing or posturing for laughs. When Kravits runs with Hall’s only good idea—rattling off the long-winded description of a disheveled Petruchio arriving at his wedding as if the joke were that Shakespeare needed an editor—you can briefly sense theatrical intelligence at work.
By comparison, Joe Dowling’s wrongheaded but fitfully amusing staging of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw feels almost elegant. At first, it seems the director is intent on turning the most subversive farce written by queerdom’s most outrageous bad-boy playwright into a delicate Shavian comedy. Then Dowling gooses up the staging a bit, and you realize that what he’s really shooting for is a rough approximation of the sort of dumb-and-dumb er British sex farce Orton intended to mock.
The problems begin with the casting. Only a couple of the performers can manage the lickety-split timing this insane-asylum farce calls for, and only one—Helen Carey as the neglected nymphomaniac wife of a philandering psychiatrist—puts the requisite comic spin on her lines. What she can do with an Ortonesque haymaker (“Have you taken up transvestism?…I had no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion”) must really be heard to be appreciated. But if she’s pretty wonderful, her jaw dropping floorward with an almost audible thud as the plot’s twists and turns surprise her, she’s also more or less on her own for most of the evening.
Miscast as her doctor husband is the same Andrew Weems who was so effective last season in A Perfect Ganesh as a gay man whose murder called the order of the universe into question. There he seemed central, though he really wasn’t. Here he’s either unaware or unable to suggest that it’s Dr. Prentice who sends all the others—the ditzy secretary who can’t type (Sevanne Martin); the randy, blackmailing hotel bellboy (Gabriel Macht); the dim, super-straight policeman who ends up in a dress (Edward Gero); and the senior psychiatrist who gets everything right by accident (Milo O’Shea)—ricocheting through the plot on ever-more-eccentric tangents. At the Round House Theater a few years ago, Prentice was played as bisexually manipulative, and as his plans went deliciously awry, the play’s dirty-minded fun took flight. At Arena, Weems plays the character as essentially passive, so there’s no anchor for the convoluted plot machinations and the evening ends up feeling merely scattered.
The others are passable—except for O’Shea, who couldn’t remember his lines on opening night, let alone spit them out with something approaching comic timing. Lost among the wallpaper roses in the overdone, Laura Ashley splendor of Frank Hallinan Flood’s setting is the sense of anarchic outrageousness that should infuse a play that deals with incest, cross-dressing, and a foot-long bronze penis that’s been blown off a statue of Winston Churchill. In the original Londonproduction, British censors thought the castration-by-explosion of the former prime minister was a bit much and wouldn’t allow the penis, so Orton substituted a cigar. Dowling brings back the penis but has so emasculated the play that he might as well be directing No Sex Please, We’re British.