PROVO — Who hasn’t been elbow-jabbed in the ribs by a companion after dozing off during a Shakespeare play? But in the enchanting adaptation of the Bard of Avon’s “Taming of the Shrew” at BYU’s Nelke Theatre, you’ll find yourself grinning from ear to ear throughout the entire production, only to be interrupted by your hearty, boisterous bursts of laughter. Although its intended target may be the youngest in the audiences, all ages will find themselves caught up in the rough-and-tumble merrymakings of this fanciful one-hour show set in a circus big top.
Frequently receiving major overhauls, most famously being Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and the film 10 Things I Hate About You, The Taming of the Shrew has been called misogynistic by its highbrow critics. But at the core the play, perhaps the dramatist’s most outrageous comedy, is a rollicking treatment of love and marriage. And the essential elements of the original are included here. If you need to brush up your Shakespeare, the major characters are: Daddy Baptista, who has two daughters to be married off; Bianca, docile, beautiful, and with many beaus; and Katherine, headstrong and sharp-tongued, so much so that she scares off any potential mate. As the eldest, Katherine must marry first. Enter the wily Petruchio, hell-bent on wooing Katherine and then domesticating her in order to win a bountiful dowry.
The play’s 14 scenes have names like “Engaged, Whether You Like It or Not!” and “Petruchio’s House, Petruchio’s Rules” and are printed on scrolls the cast individually unfurls on the backdrop. Each scene is announced and separated by the clang of a suspended cymbal. This is the first of many whimsical sound effects and cleverly selected props that are hilarious but also both punctuate and clarify the on-stage action. It’s clear the theater department’s entire arsenal of timpani, kazoos, xylophones, slide whistles, cowbells, chimes, cucharas, tambourines, tom toms, and triangles was scoured to be farcically inserted into the action. Kudos to whoever conceived the twirling of open umbrellas as rotating cart wheels. Oh, and the juggling of scarves, balls, and rings, taught by circus expert Matthew Love, adds much to the circus/commedia dell’arte atmosphere.
With a scant cast of five—and only three of them taking on multiple parts—audience members are selected, or captured, to fill in the remaining roles – if they can first pass the arduous test of simultaneously rubbing their stomachs and patting their heads. Each volunteer is quickly costumed and given only brief instructions on their roles. The lucky man enlisted to portray Signor Baptista is given cards to read his lines and is cued with the whack of a foam pool noodle. And the cast’s adlibs to any flubs by the volunteers add to the play’s humor.
At the outset, Ashley Bonner sets the comic tone and wins us over as Circus Ringmaster, complete with cardboard megaphone, when she summarizes the basic plot points and introduces the characters. The actress also later transforms into the love-struck Hortensio and the amusingly melancholy Widow. Bonner is most appealing when she manipulates a near-life-size puppet (crafted by Nathanial Reed) and channels Madeline Kahn with a lazy-tongued “r” speech impediment. As the shrew Katherine (“Don’t call me Kate”), Emily Foster is wittily tempestuous and then beguiling submissive, and she tackles the physical comedy with aplomb. Her final conclusion that husbands ask only for “love, fair looks, and true obedience” is off-kilter but also heartfelt. Entering the stage at one point on a stick horse, Peter Layland gives a zesty performance. His Petruchio takes on a swaggering, exaggerated Errol Flynn persona, all mugging and over-the-top, perfectly suited to the character’s grandiose style as written by Shakespeare. While we can only assume she’s not related to the author, Anne Shakespeare plays ingénue Bianca (and Tailor) with brio, abounding with vigorous energy. Jackie Johnson, cast late with only four days to prepare for her roles, is to be applauded for her turn as Grumio, who is in on the game of finding a suitor for Katherine; and Lucentio, a lover of Bianca.
Under David Morgan’s deft direction, each member of the versatile cast is allowed to shine. But it all begins with the script. Instead of dumbing down the original text by BillyS (as he was affectionately known in his Elizabethan hood), Teresa Dayley Love adapts the script masterfully to juggle the comic proceedings so they don’t overshadow the fundamental storytelling elements of the play. Her many years of experience in children’s theater is evident here. The eye-candy costume design by Deanne Dewitt is outlandish but also defines the characters – like dressing Petruchio as a lion tamer in jodhpurs and knee-high boots. The inventive scenic design is by Janet Swenson.
A first Shakespeare play can be a child’s rite of passage into the wondrous world of live theater, and this production will entertain and educate – without forcing a capital “E” onto either of the two outcomes.