Shakespearean comedies are unbelievably hard to get right, because a company accepting the challenge must seek a perfect balance between making the play funny and making the audience understand the dialogue and plot. Too often I have seen directors put most of the emphasis on the former, meaning that the product does not so much resemble a coherent play as a series of dumb, silly skits aimed at getting a cheap laugh. While I admit that most audiences seem to find this enjoyable, personally it drives me insane. The point of comedy should not solely be to make the audience laugh; rather, a good comedy should tell an intriguing story which, if done right, will effortlessly make the audience laugh. So many theaters across the country are guilty of producing Shakespeare in this way; even the absolutely phenomenal Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation’s largest non-profit repertory theater company, has sometimes turned the Bard’s comedies into a series of SNL style skits. So when I went to the New Swan Shakespeare Festival at UC Irvine this summer and saw that they had set The Taming of the Shrew in the ‘90s punk rock scene, I was a little nervous that it would fall into the same trap.
And boy, I could not have been more wrong.
For the record, I did notice a few cheap jokes at the beginning of the show, including a ‘swag’ secret handshake and a character who inexplicably entered on roller skates. However, the following 110 minutes of the show were simultaneously hilarious, interesting, and downright fantastic. Producing and directing The Taming of the Shrew comes with its own special set of problems too, due to the sexist nature of the show. For those that are unaware, Shrew is about a fetching, mild girl named Bianca (Chynna Walker) whose father will not let her marry until her older, arrogant, and rebellious sister Katherine (Grace Morrison) ties the knot; desperate to win Bianca’s hand, Hortensio (Thomas Varga) and Lucentio (DeShawn Harold Mitchell) convince Petruchio (Ryan Imhoff) to ‘tame’ her. Clearly, there is no way to produce this comedy without dealing with its blatant sexism.
But director Beth Lopes works around these issues brilliantly through a simple and honest portrayal of Petruchio and Katherine. As opposed to previous productions of Shrew that I have seen, the two main characters in New Swan’s version were not caricatures or cartoons, but rather deeply flawed people; Katherine is rude, and Petruchio is conceited at best and a misogynist at worst. Although they were both interesting and side-splittingly funny, Lopes made sure that the audience had the opportunity to sufficiently judge both of them. Not only did we laugh at them, we felt a strange and inescapable sense of shame for doing so since their behaviors, prejudices, and worldviews were considered acceptable until very, very recently (in fact, I’m sure some might argue that their prejudices and worldviews are still acceptable today). New Swan’s show went beyond making the audience “laugh out loud”; it made us think and actually feel something. That’s what distinguishes a good production from a great one.
Of course, if I’m going to talk about the portrayal of the characters, I need to talk about the actors and the fact that I had trouble finding fault with any of them. Ryan Imhoff as Petruchio was as arrogant as he was smart and funny, Grace Morrison as Kate was stubborn and fascinating, and the chemistry between the two of them was believable and fun. The supporting actors were equally interesting, and if asked which one I liked the most, I’m not sure that I could give an answer. And that doesn’t even get into the clever costume design, the gripping sound design, and the charming lighting design coupled with the novelty of a small, intimate outdoor theater.
It is here that I should mention that New Swan ran The Tempest simultaneously with Shrew, which I saw and enjoyed immensely. But I chose to focus my review of this season on The Taming of the Shrew because it gave me an experience that I was not expecting. I honestly think that this production broke new ground specifically because it wasn’t trying to. It wasn’t trying to make it so unique that it turned into a gag. It wasn’t trying to be so funny that it came off as cheesy. Less is so often more in comedy, and New Swan’s adaptation embodies this perfectly. After my first year at UCI, I was excited to witness my first New Swan season; next summer, I will be absolutely ecstatic to see it return.