Massively entertaining “Shrew”

By Judith Newmark

With witty 1950s costumes and an alluring, midcentury-modern set, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ production of “The Taming of the Shrew” looks totally different from last year’s beautiful, tights-and-doublets take on “Hamlet.”

Thank goodness!

The back-to-back visual contrast emphasizes one of the best things about Shakespeare, his endless flexibility. The festival, affirming the joy of variety with different visual styles, subtly reinforces the joy of Shakespeare, too.

The team behind this massively entertaining “Shrew” — director Sean Graney, costume designer Alison Siple and set designer Scott C. Neale — exerts plenty of theatrical power. Too bad they can’t control the weather, too.

Around 1,100 people turned out for Friday’s opening night show. During the preshow period the rain came and went.
It went in time for the play to start on schedule, at 8. But when a downpour began at 8:30, Rick Dildine, the festival artistic director, had to stop the show. Most members of the audience stayed through the break, which lasted about 40 minutes.

An interruption isn’t a plus for any play, especially a comedy. But Graney based this “Shrew” on colorful characters as much as timing, and members of this vibrant cast plunged back into their outlandish roles so wholeheartedly, it was if they’d never stepped offstage.

Actors in smaller roles really performed big time. Karl Gregory and David Graham Jones are hilarious as servants, overstepping their “place” time and again as they indulge in goofy physical antics. (Kids will definitely get their comedy, making “Shrew” a great family outing.) Kurt Ehrmann, in a trio of small roles, comes close to stealing the show, especially in the second half, when he seems to clone himself.

Annie Worden and Paul Hurley star as Kate the Shrew and her canny groom, Petruchio. Kate has such a bad temper that no one will woo her. With his heartbreaker grin and bold stride, Hurley delivers a classical Shakespearean charmer, even if he’s wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans. The more things change …

Worden is in a less comfortable position. What are we to make of a fairly modern woman who lets a man tame her? Sure, she needs to calm down; this Kate is fairly nuts from the get-go, torturing her sister and her suitors with a lack of self-control rarely observed in anyone beyond kindergarten. Still, Petruchio’s methods of behavior modification — sleep deprivation, starvation — seem kind of mean.
Hurley never seems mean, though, and Worden comes up with her own thoughtful approach: sullenness. With her head downcast and her sideways squint, she hardly engages with anyone.

But when she’s forced to grab for a hamburger, she has to pick her head up. By the end of the play, when she delivers her beautiful final speech smartly attired in a white pantsuit with red piping, she’s an attorney at summation; she’s Portia or Rosalind, a poised Shakespearean heroine. Maybe Petruchio simply encouraged her to be herself — her best self.

Graney’s decision to set “Shrew” in the 1950s pays off in key ways. First, it takes the play out of a time so remote that we dismiss its heroine and hero as normal because “people used to act that way.” No, they didn’t, and we can’t understand them if we pretend that they did. Kate and Petruchio were never normal, which is the basis of the comedy.

Second, it gives us a chance to look at a theatrical design — from a big-finned Cadillac to polka-dotted shoes to low-slung pastel furniture to poufed-up skirts — that smartly echoes another time. But we love it today — like Shakespeare.