Taming, or empowering, of the 'Shrew'?

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By Doug Deuchler

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Shakespeare's boisterously bold early comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, about a lively woman's subjugation, is one of the Bard's most controversial plays. Sadistic misogyny or hilarious romantic rough-house? A fortune-hunting scoundrel tormenting an aggressive young woman until she becomes his compliant trophy wife? 

But have no fear. The current Oak Park Festival Theatre production has confronted the challenge of depicting the potentially problematic play's sexist central theme of male dominance through domestic abuse. True to form, the fearlessly experimental Festival troupe takes risks. I'm happy to report that director Adrianne Curry reimagines the battle-of-the-sexes story in ways that make it palatable — even sweetly satisfying. 

This fast-paced, accessible, enjoyable production finally was able to open after a string of evening thunderstorms. Opening night and several subsequent performances were cancelled.

The diverse, large cast is lively and fun. This second production of Oak Park Festival Theatre's 42nd season show is excitingly staged, audible, and fascinating. 

A wealthy merchant of 1590s Padua named Baptista (Tony Dobrowski) has two daughters he wishes to marry off. The eldest, who must be wed first, is Kate (Jenai Mootz), the "shrew" of the title. She's earthy and intelligent but also tough and independent, totally uninterested in the drab or annoying suitors who have pursued her. In this period, young women had little voice in arranging their own marriages. So high-spirited Kate has become a ferocious hellcat to ward off all potential husbands. She has virtually no other means of defense. 

Baptista worries he'll not be able to marry Kate off. But his younger daughter, spoiled, flirty Bianca (Daniella Pereira), has a number of eager suitors. She's seen as far more desirable than Kate and is impatient to wed.

Then swaggering, confident Petruchio (John Crosthwaite) arrives from Verona seeking a bride with a hefty dowry. He seems as headstrong and independent as Kate. But this Petruchio is not portrayed as a hyper-masculine bully. 

Often in productions of Shrew, the audience initially dislikes ferocious Kate. She's always shrieking and hurling crockery. This time, however, Mootz is clever and high-spirited, likeable as well as misunderstood. We notice an almost instant chemistry between Petruchio and Kate. They're both brash and confident. It's clear that they understand each other and seem like co-conspirators. 

Petruchio gives Kate the respect and attention she rarely gets in her sister's shadow. His "taming" is more empowering than abusive.

The audience seemed to really enjoy the '60s and '70s music that is played before the show and between acts. Folks even danced together during the intermission. But this music did not work for me during the show, which is set in the Renaissance period. I found the various punctuating clips — like Carole King belting "I feel the earth move" or The Rolling Stones wailing, "I can't get no satisfaction" — to be anachronistically distracting and intrusive. 

Petruchio's servant-sidekick, Grumio, played by Marty Robinson, provides plenty of comic moments.

The suitors are Jack Hickey, Jesse Dornan and Nicholas Bailey. The latter plays Lucentio, who falls for Bianca. Matthew Gall is Tramio.

The set by Sean McIntosh nicely accommodates several locations. Rachel Sypniewski's costumes are detailed and impressive. 

The original five-act text has been edited down to just slightly over 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. 

Taming of the Shrew is a zesty, colorful production. Summer is fleeting. Pack up a picnic and head over to Austin Gardens to enjoy this lively comedy which leaves us on August 27.

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