EPAC’s ‘Shrew’ is pleasant trifle

Reviewed by George Basler

The Taming of the Shrew is one of William Shakespeare’s more controversial plays, as well as one of his best known. If taken seriously, the misogynistic tone and message of female submissiveness can be grating, even offensive, to modern audiences.

Thankfully, the Endicott Performing Arts Center’s production, which opened Thursday (Aug. 16) and will run through Sunday (Aug. 19), doesn’t take itself seriously. The show is a pleasant, if not exactly memorable, diversion for a warm summer’s evening.

The EPAC production, which is free and open to all, is helped greatly by the performance venue. The outdoor setting of the Stage at Little Italy, a pavilion in Endicott’s George W. Johnson Park, blends perfectly with the informality of the production. In fact, the best way to enjoy the evening may be to bring some light refreshment, along with a lawn chair, and leave your critical faculties at home.

The EPAC production, directed by Chris Nickerson, changes the time period from Renaissance Italy to the 1950s, complete with music from that era, including a number of Italian pop songs. There’s even a nod to the 1960s when one of the characters disguises himself as a music teacher by carrying a guitar and wearing the hippie clothes of that era.

For the most part, the gimmick works, especially near the end of Act II, when the cast breaks into a party and asks for audience participation. Purists may blanch, but I found it fun. A little irreverence is in order when dealing with one of the Bard’s bawdiest and, by today’s standards, most politically incorrect comedies.

The centerpiece of The Taming of the Shrew — and the reason it has retained its popularity — is the relationship between Katharina, the eldest daughter of a rich merchant whose shrewish temperament and notorious temper make her off limits to suitors, and Petruchio, the fortune hunter recruited to court her and thus clear the way for Katharina’s younger sister, Bianca, to marry.

The EPAC production benefits from the fact that the comic verbal interplay between Tim Mollen as Petruchio and Julia Adams as Kate is well done. Mollen catches Petruchio’s boastfulness while parodying his male chauvinism. Adams is fine, especially in the final scene of reconciliation, when Kate gives her well-known speech on why wives should be submissive to their husbands (in the end probably gaining more power through this approach). However, she could have been more forceful in her opening scenes. She seems more peevish than spirited, at times.

Moreover, the relationship between Kate and Petruchio could have benefited from a little more lustiness. Not that they should be ripping their clothes off, but a little more over-the-top bawdiness and sexual tension would have been nice.

The main problem with the play is the complicated secondary plot that involves a bunch of characters exchanging places and hatching complicated plots to win the hand of Bianca.

Back in the 1960s, director Franco Zeffirelli dropped much of this plot, and about half the play’s lines, in a movie version featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The approach drew some caviling from purists. But Zeffirelli’s approach was the right idea. The EPAC cast tries hard, and does a credible job, but it can’t disguise the fact that this isn’t first-rate Shakespeare. The show kind of sputters when Kate and Petruchio aren’t on the stage.

If you don’t like Shakespeare, this production is unlikely to win you over. If you do like the Bard, or are neutral, you’ll probably have a pleasant evening as long as you don’t try to think too hard. I don’t think Shakespeare intended this effort as anything too serious, and audiences shouldn’t either. Bring the lawn chairs, and leave the analysis to scholars in English classes.

And you sure can’t beat the price.

IF YOU GO: The final performance of The Taming of the Shrew will be at 7:30 p.m. today (Aug. 19), at George W. Johnson Park on Oak Hill Avenue in Endicott. It is performed at the Stage at Little Italy, a performance pavilion in the park.

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