CEDAR CITY — When the Utah Shakespeare Festival produced its first season in 1962, Fred C. Adams directed the inaugural production, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which tells the story of the combative courtship between Petruchio and Kate. In 1977, when the iconic Adams Memorial Theater was constructed, again it was Adams and Shrew. That beloved stage will retire this year, as things at the Festival grow and change. Therefore, it is a beautifully fitting farewell to the Adams to again perform The Taming of a Shrew for this 2015 season.
This production had a natural comedic rhythm and a sense of camaraderie between the actors. Adams surprised me with sprinkles of comedy in the corners of the stage; these treats included Baptista (Peter Sham) and friends spying out an upstairs window, a frustrated servant throwing suspicious glances at the audience, and grown men huddled together like gossiping teenagers. It feels like Adams gave the actors a lot of freedom to add their own touches to the scenes; this was one of the most entertaining groups of supporting characters that I have ever seen.
Brian Vaughn was a larger than life presence onstage as he played Petruchio. His posture, stride, gestures, and speech commanded attention and respect. So it was cute when, scared to meet Kate (played by Melinda Pfundstein, Vaughn’s real-life wife), he paced around and psyched himself up like a boxing champ. Petruchio’s strategies for “taming” Kate were sometimes beyond my grasp, and Pfundstein’s perplexed expressions reflected my own confusion. Pfundstein is such a talented actress; the emotions she shows on stage are impossible to oppose. Throughout the play, I would find myself rooting for Petruchio, until I found myself defending Kate, until Petruchio changed my mind—back and forth my alliance would go.
Petruchio’s right-hand man, Grumio, was played by Aaron Galligan-Stierle, whom I’ve seen play the underappreciated and often abused sidekick in past years at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Galligan-Stierle played Smee in Peter and The Starcatcher in 2013 and one of the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors last year. For this production specifically, his endearing mistakes and struggles (as Grumio), like his attempts to light a fire, make him an instant favorite.
Michael Doherty is an actor who is new to me. But in his role as Tranio, Lucentio’s servant and partner-in-crime, he wowed me. Doherty seems to have been born hilarious, from his dramatic eyebrows down to his agile feet, and his relationship with Lucentio (Sam Ashdown) was seamless. Coming in a close second in the race for comedic king in The Taming of the Shrew was Drew Shirley playing Hortensio. The image of Shirley dressed as a scholar, hit over the head with a lute, bawling over Kate’s abuse, and quoting her in a monster voice was priceless. My life would be incomplete without that moment.
Vicki M. Smith’s set design for the city-state of Padua was welcoming, orderly, and beautiful, with warm sunny lighting (designed by Donna Ruzika). It was a perfect opposite to the intensity and scheming of this play. There is one point when basically all of the men are outside wheeling and dealing over the courting plans, and I laughed picturing the unsuspecting females in their nice home with the flowers out front. The final scene felt grand and exciting with hanging lanterns and generous banquet tables. It was satisfying to see costume designer Bill Black’s Petruchio-torn dress on Kate in that scene also, along with the other beautiful apparel.
It was a pleasure to experience a great script directed by a monumental man on a hugely influential stage. Productions of this caliber are the reason patrons return to the Utah Shakespeare Festival year after year. Unquestionably, The Taming of the Shrew is a highlight of this year’s season in Cedar City.