SANDWICH — Advice To The Players’ 20th season got off to an inauspicious start with a middling production of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” which opened March 15 at the Sandwich Town Hall, with two remaining performances March 23 and 24 in Sandwich, and an additional performance at Jean’s Playhouse in Lincoln on March 25.
“Taming of the Shrew” is a comedy about the two daughters of the lord Baptista (William Johnson). The sweet Bianca (Rebecca Mansfield) is beset by many suitors, including Lucentio (Luke Haskell), Hortensio (Frederick Bickford) and Gremio (Dennis Sullivan). Her older sister Katherine (Kimberley Miller) is independent and brash and no man wants to woo her.
Baptista forbids Bianca marry until Katherine does. Enter Petruchio (Carsey Walker Jr.) who, swayed by an impressive dowry, is persuaded to take on the task of making Katherine a more desirable and obedient bride.
Obviously, “Taming of the Shrew” is a product and reflection of the time in which it was written (although even that is up to some debate), but modern audiences often struggle with seeing “The Taming of the Shrew” as comedic fare.
The gender politics on display shouldn’t have to conform to modern sensibility, but it can be difficult to make this material work comedically. Scenes of taming the willful Katherine through sleep deprivation and starvation can be particularly difficult to stomach.
To make it work as farce, the performances need a degree of self-awareness about the material and push it to a level of absurdity, if not, audiences will start to dwell on the deeper implications of the material.
Conversely, with a slight shift in tone, “Taming of the Shrew” can become a dark comedy/satire that could be used as a jumping off point for the discussion of domestic abuse, gaslighting and the shift of gender power dynamics through the ages.
Director Caroline Nesbitt doesn’t seem to have any angle on the material. In her director’s notes, she says she sees the play as “a classic bedroom comedy” but the performances don’t reflect that. The pacing also isn’t fast enough to create any sort of comedic frenzy.
The production seems to be attempting slapstick with the use of coconuts to create the sound of hoofs ala Monty Python and a yellow plastic hose to represent a sword. The direction to the actors seemed to be that yelling one’s lines would make them funnier.
It doesn’t help that several performances come across as flat. Given that Shakespeare’s highly stylized dialogue can be difficult for modern audiences to follow, it is imperative that the meaning of the language comes across through the tone, inflection and body language of the performers.
Without this, the context of the dialogue can become lost. This is especially true of the exposition-heavy early scenes in “Taming of the Shrew,” which become a trudge due to the monotone delivery by some of the actors.
The production does have some bright spots, most notably Walker’s Petruchio. He brings a modern sensibility to many of his line readings that brings a vitality to his performance.
Unfortunately, while Walker’s performance is the strongest and most charismatic, it is somewhat at odds with the rest of the cast, which have a more traditional approach to the dialogue. Nesbitt could have created a more consistent production by taking Walker’s lead and having the rest of the cast match his approach or vice versa.
“Taming of the Shrew” opens with a framing device of a play within a play being performed for a drunk (Johnston). When the play begins proper is a little unclear, but Johnston is effective and funny as the drunk in these opening moments before shifting to the role of Baptista.
Other noteworthy performances include Haskell’s Lucentio, Mansfield’s Bianca and Ellie Bartz’ Tranio. Each actor has a noticeable ease and lightness of touch with the Shakespearean dialogue.
It is telling that all these performances are related to the B-plot of Bianca and her suitors which is more in tone with Shakespeare’s other comedies (complete with characters in disguises and mistaken identities). That these scenes are more buoyant makes it more apparent that the production didn’t know how to properly handle the Petruchio and Katherine scenes.
There are other little details that are nice touches, such as the clever idea of making a chain mail of aluminum can tabs, but overall it is a disappointing production that had the potential to be so much more.
For more information, go to advicetotheplayers.org or calling (603) 284-7115.