SOUTH SALT LAKE — I keep coming back to the Utah Children’s Theatre’s Shakespeare Festival for Kids and Adults with Short Attention Spans. Having reviewed this festival’s productions since 2013, I have to ask why I keep coming back. The answer is: productions like this year’s The Taming of the Shrew.
The Taming of the Shrew, of course, is Shakespeare‘s story of Katherina, a disagreeable woman who must be married off before her highly sought after younger sister, Bianca, can marry. Several men pursue Bianca, but only Petruchio dares to woo Katherina. The result is a battle of wills between Petruchio and Katherina, which has great potential for hilarity in this 400-year-old story.
Director Joanne M. Parker crafted a tight production that is enjoyable for any age group. The opening minutes of the play were boisterous and colorful, and this energy carried on through intermission unabated. Joanne M. Parker has a talent for inserting little bits of verbal or physical comedy unobtrusively into the script, such as a clever contract signing, or the uproarious fight between Petruchio and Gremio. These bits always brought the stage action back to the level of its intended audience, and are instrumental in keeping the play accessible. Yet, this director also knows the value of a quiet moment, and Petruchio’s soliloquy before meeting Katherina was a refreshing reminder that the play is populated with characters who have hopes and feelings.
Parker was also able to create dozens of pleasant stage pictures, and the costumes designed Cathy Maurer and Hannah Schweinfurth were vital ingredients to Parker’s success. The costumes were memorable with their bright patterns and Renaissance cuts. Maurer and Schweinfurth chose a single color that would dominate each character’s costume, which makes it easy to identify characters when they re-enter the stage. I also appreciated the commedia dell’arte inspiration in many of the costumes, such as Gremio’s being dressed as a traditional “pantaloon” character or Lucentio’s feathers in his hat. Indeed, this mix of elements that capture children’s attentions with elements that theatrically savvy adults would recognize is emblematic of The Taming of the Shrew as a whole and makes it a production that has appeal that transcends age groups.
As Katherina, Emily Trulson Parker was stubborn and the complete opposite of the more genteel Bianca. The actress made Katherina’s change from shrew to loving wife believable; this is one of the most challenging character arcs in the Shakespeare canon, and Emily Trulson Parker made it credible by making Katherina joke with Petruchio in their first scene together. This plants the seeds of love and is vital to making the character—and the play—work. Thus, in the critical scene where Katherina and Petruchio are traveling back to Padua, their disagreements have become the stuff of a running joke and there seems to be a genuine affection between the two characters.
It helps that Emily Trulson Parker had a great deal of chemistry with her Petruchio, James Parker, who gave his Petruchio the proper swagger and made him just a little bit roguish. Thus, Petruchio was rough enough to be believable as a man who would treat Katherina uncivilly, but it never felt like he was a violent person. This balance is important when dealing with The Taming of the Shrew, which can challenge modern sensibilities of how to treat women.
Several supporting actors are worthy of mention, foremost among them Sarah Danielle Young as Bianca. Her mildness and the way she almost glided around the stage in her dress as she walked made it easy to see the distinctions between Bianca from the more headstrong Katherina. Christopher Taylor gave Baptista (Katherina and Bianca’s father) a little bit of battiness that made him endearing and an unexpected focus of humor in many of his scenes. And Zach Vayo’s Gremio drew upon the commedia dell’arte stock character of the old lovestruck man to increase the absurdity of the comedy in most of his scenes, even though Gremio was the least realistic character in the production. Finally, I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the cast for the play’s setting of Padua, which resulted in a recurring gag that I did not tire of.
The flaws in this production are few. The second half of the production is less energetic than the first, and the talky scenes could work better if they were cut down further. Additionally, Thomas Hohl‘s lighting designs were fine in most scenes, but when the cyclorama was lit yellow some of the actors seemed to have a weird green outline.
Yet, no reasonable audience member would let these minor issues inhibit them from enjoying what is a great production of The Taming of the Shrew. Joanne M. Parker and her cast have created a show that both children and adults can enjoy. Shakespeare aficionados will appreciate the skillful direction, while children will enjoy the color and energy that bursts from nearly every scene of this Shakespeare comedy.