A lively kick in the problematic pants

Portland Shakespeare Project's "Shrew" jumps for joy; "Greater Tuna" is (disturbingly) us

Yucking it up: a "Shrew" for the funnybone. Photo: David Kinder

Yucking it up: a “Shrew” for the funnybone. Photo: David Kinder

“The Taming of the Shrew” is popping up all over the place these days, which is like a delightful flowering of geraniums to some theater fans, and an infestation of musk thistles to others. The master-and-obedient-servant relationship between Petruchio and Kate makes people wince, and among the mutterings from the sidelines and back rows you can hear the words “problem play.”

Well, they’re all problem plays – pretty much any play worth its salt. Something happens in a play, and it has consequences. Why else would we watch if not to confront the problem, and the way the characters deal with it? But Shakespeare, writing across the centuries to us from a place that is both familiar and surprisingly alien, presents meta-problems: problems not just of psychology and emotion but also of cultural assumptions and agreed-upon patterns of belief and behavior. One of the many things that still attract us to him, besides his sheer skill as a dramatist and poet, is the sense that, while he shared the beliefs of his time, he also saw the flaws in them and created suggestions of a different way of looking at things: little windows of possible change. We read and see “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” very differently from the way their original audiences did, and very likely from the way Shakespeare meant them when he wrote them. Yet by presenting their characters so vividly, he also created alternatives to the accepted prejudices and platitudes of his time. (It can come as a mild shock to realize, for instance, that to the Elizabethan mind “Merchant” was a comedy, and Shylock wasn’t its main character.) And so, now, we experience Shakespeare most rewardingly by keeping one eye on the early 17th century and one on the early 21st. That means accepting, if not embracing, the cultural meta-problems embedded in the plays – and understanding that a lot of things we take for granted now are most likely going to be viewed with a wince by our descendants. To pretend the past was different than it was destabilizes the present and the future.

But enough of this background blather. What about Kate and Petruchio, whose hold on our imaginations remains tight in spite of our very different beliefs about equality between the sexes, and despite the flaring war on women in the United States and around the world? And what, more to the point, about the Portland Shakespeare Project’s new production of “Shrew,” which opened over the weekend on Artists Rep’s intimate Alder Street stage?

I’m tempted to say, Just go see it. It’s a rich, funny, self-assured production, tumbling with witticisms high and low, and it whets the appetite for John Fletcher’s rarely performed “response” play, “The Tamer Tamed,” which the Shakespeare Project will open later this month and run in repertory with “Shrew.” (Yet another variation, the Cole Porter/Sam and Bella Spewack musical “Kiss Me Kate,” opens August 3 at Clackamas Rep.) Director Michael Mendelson has fluffed the thing up with period visual touches, reinstated the usually dropped “dream” bookends featuring the drunken tinker Christopher Sly, and goosed the action with a circusload of physical shtick.

The company talks about taking inspiration from the old Rowan & Martin “Laugh-In” TV show, with its quick-paced sneak attacks of visual and verbal gags. The production also reminds me of “I Love Lucy” slapstick with its frenetic comedy of embarrassment, and mobster-movie conventions, and very much of commedia delle’arte, the vigorous physical comedy that was also on Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote this early play, which is from the early 1590s, when Shakespeare was still in his 20s. “Shrew” abounds with vivid and muscular rhyme, which the players must suggest rhythmically without lapsing into singsong.

A huge amount of the fun comes from the supporting players here, among them canny veterans such as Ted Schulz (a mock-menacing Vicentio) and Gary Powell (a ridiculously mustachioed Baptista); adaptable clowns (Rusty Tennant in a passel of roles; Nathan Dunkin as the credulous Sly); a Mary Quant-ified mod sister Bianca (Foss Curtis); and the tumbling, flopping, cartoon acrobatics of Grumio (Nikolas Hoback). The pace can be frantic, and sometimes the bits fly too thick: I could have done without the Marlon Brando “Godfather” routine, for instance. But if at times the clatter seems a little like a used-car salesman’s pitch, it’s also fluid and funny and under just enough control. And with its witty sets and costumes (by John Ellingson and Jessica Bobillot, respectively) it’s a pleasure visually.

The heart of the play, though, is still the fearsome misfits Kate and Petruchio and their squabble royal for supremacy or equivalence. And Mendelson’s antagonists are pretty scarifying. James Farmer gives Petruchio a feral, calculated psycho edge: he’s a pretty scary guy, with a head harder than limestone. As Kate, the wonderful Maureen Porter moves from fevered wildcat anger to a lovely underlined humor that widens her outlook and frees her from the curse of understanding both too little and too much. Shakespeare streamlined and improved on the model of beloved enemies with Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” but Kate and Petruchio make up the difference in their very roughness. As a metaphor for a successful marriage, “Shrew”’s brilliant insight is that good partners are equals in each other’s eyes, and create an in-joke front for the rest of the world. It’s the sun? Great. It’s the moon? No doubt. Whatever you say, dear. Wink-wink. When accommodation turns to true partnership, the marriage begins, and in this production it’s Porter who carries the weight of that transformation. What seems a capitulation – she will be obedient – is actually a coping strategy, a front to present to a society that expects a man to be the lord of the manor. What goes on behind closed doors is very much up to the man and woman who make their own private agreements. Kate’s submissiveness can still make us shift uncomfortably in our seats. But it’s not much different from the agreements that Jane Austen’s heroines and heroes strike: create a private relationship of mutual respect, and build a Potemkin village of outward propriety to smooth the passage through the culture around you. My guess is that with this particular Kate and Petruchio, Pete’s going to continue to be an occasional lunkhead, and Kate’s going to find a way to bring him back in line. In a 1592/2013 kind of a way.

*

THE NIGHT AFTER “SHREW” OPENED I drove to Lake Oswego to take in the second night of Lakewood Theatre’s “Greater Tuna,” with those reliable comic veterans Jay Randall Horenstein and Gary Brickner-Schulz playing all the residents, male and female, of the third-smallest town in Texas. Part of the pleasure of “Tuna” is watching the quick switches of character and costume, and part is the sense of the play’s spoofery, its affectionate knocking-about of the stereotypes and exaggerations of an ingrown subculture. When it came out in the 1980s it was embraced by Southerners and urbanites alike, in the way that “Nunsense” appealed to devout Catholics maybe even more than to people who didn’t know the insides of a church from a chalupa. I’ve seen a few “Tuna”s over the years, and I’ve always looked on it as an agreeable, farcically accomplished, only slightly caustic romp.

Horenstein and Brickner-Schulz. Photo: Lakewood Theatre

Horenstein and Brickner-Schulz. Photo: Lakewood Theatre

But this time I found it a little more unsettling. The actors were good. The design was tops. The pacing might have dragged just a bit, but I put that down partly to second-night letdown, and I fully expect these two actors, whose work I’ve known for years, to spread their wings and fly.

Something’s changed, though, in the last quarter-century, and for me, at least, it’s given “Tuna” an edge I hadn’t seen before. In 1985 these comic exaggerations of Texas good ol’ boys and girls were funny because the realities they were based on seemed to be fading away: the world was becoming more progressive, and that hardscrabble backwardness was becoming the past. It’s easy to be amused by a defanged snake. Today, Tuna feels like the future. Ignorance and aggression are on the rise; pettifoggery shrouds our statehouses and airwaves and national capital; everywhere we look it’s Tuna Tuna Tuna. From sea to shining sea we’re becoming the third smallest town in Texas – and suddenly, it’s not so funny anymore. The empathy for these small-town folks is still there (I’m from a small town myself). But these days it comes with a slight chill down the spine.

Still, there are very good things about the world of “Tuna,” and that’s what makes our national tumble down the beady-eyed rabbit hole of willful ignorance so distressing. The morning after I saw the show I made a grocery run, during which I endured over the supermarket’s loudspeaker yet another of those vaguely annoying, blandly scripted and intolerably sung attempts at country-pop that clog the radio bands and smother the senses like little drops of musical morphine. I thought back wistfully to the previous evening’s mix of Bob Wills and Kitty Wells and the like: genuinely good music from a distinctive culture with its own sense of the world. But can you have the rhythm without the blues? Ah, there’s the rub. And I’m not talkin’ barbecue.

*

  • “The Taming of the Shrew” continues through August 4; information here.
  • “Greater Tuna” continues through August 18; information here.

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