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By Bridgette Redman
It was not merely the small size of the audience at the Hannah Center Friday night that muffled the laughter one would expect from the clever and bawdy comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” — it was the lack of humor and an interpretation that was offensive from first to last.
Even with the problematic final speech, “The Taming of the Shrew” earns its place among Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. Petruchio is looking to wive wealthily, while Kate is scaring away all of her sister’s suitors. Both man and woman are strong-willed individuals who fight tooth and nail until they end up falling in love. Meanwhile the sister is besieged by suitors who disguise themselves and quarrel amongst each other until one is triumphant. It is filled with fiery sexual tension, disguises and physical comedy. At least, that’s what it is supposed to have.
It did not.
The Bach Dor Shakespeare Company failed to achieve comedy with their disjointed and distasteful presentation. They neglected to provide any real sexual tension, instead portraying abusive power struggles between people who never connected. The physical comedy was forced, robbing all the characters of their authenticity. There were some clever movement bits, but they devolved to physical tics when they substituted for any real character work or relationship connections.
“The Taming of the Shrew” requires careful direction in the modern world lest it turn into exactly what this production was — a play that glorified the abuse of women. There were so many places where a director’s hand was needed to mold the bits and pieces into a coherent story line. People delivered lines rather than tell a story. Many of those lines were delivered well, but the interpretation seemed chosen to try to squeeze out laughs rather than with any view to what was being presented by the choices being made.
Trisha Koslowski’s Katharina was an isolated, hurting woman who wanted to be loved and instead was ostracized at home, sold off, and then abused by her husband. It’s hard to find much laugh-worthy in that. She had a vulnerability that would have been beautiful on Anne in “Richard III” or Desdemona in the final act of “Othello.” It was heart-wrenching. But we’re not supposed to be pitying Kate when first we meet her. She is supposed to be a wildcat. Koslowski’s Kate was tamed before she first spoke. She had a little spunk and sometimes raised her voice, but there was none of Shakespeare’s Kate in her. It was as if she was simply using bursts of temper to protect herself from the undeserved mistreatment she received on all sides. Even in the final scene, she was more of a Beatrice from “Much Ado” than a Kate, but at least then the audience could stop being concerned about her welfare.
Because of Koslowski’s interpretation, Michael Hayes’ Petruchio was a cruel and heartless villain for whom no sympathy was possible. This is not the husband determined to cure the distemper of his spouse with pretended kindness. It wasn’t a partner battling it out with an equally strong-willed wife. This was a husband who wanted absolute control — to break her to his will. He cared nothing for her, but only for her money and for the conquest. While he spoke Will’s words expressing his desire for her, he gave her not so much as a single smoldering glance.
While it is certainly a choice to play Petruchio as a villain and Kate as a victim, (and both actors performed those roles quite well), it strips any laughter or joy from this play for all but the most sadistic of play-goers. Nor was there any sort of consistency in that as a vision, for the villain is not defeated and the victim continues being a victim with her only change being that at play’s end she has Stockholm syndrome. Worse, that seems to be what everyone in the play thinks is the most laudable outcome — if they care at all.
Hayes, Koslowski and company founder Randy Matthews had the best vocal quality in the play, though Koslowski struggled from time to time. Nearly everyone’s projection filled the space whether they were on stage or walking through the aisles of the audience.
Amongst all the characters, the bawdiness was forced and uncomfortable. Some of it (especially between master and servant) played false and betrayed any sense of character or relationship, but was merely a response to whatever individual word they were saying at the time.
Bach Dor Shakespeare lists no director — whether out of shame or design. It may be one of the “original practices” that they have adopted. If so, they need to rethink that policy until they have a troupe that has worked together often enough that their individual interpretations won’t clash so wildly and end up slaying any storytelling. Because there was a lack of intention and a lack of trust in the text itself, the performance succeeded only in glorifying bad behavior and destructive relationships.
It would be easy to lengthen this review, to talk about the misdirected energies and the wild, unnecessary crosses, to explore where the original practices worked and didn’t, to expose the inconsistencies, to examine the lighting that put glares on the actors’ faces, but all of those are of little import compared to the inattention to the story. People don’t go to the theater to see solo performances, but at Bach Dor Shakespeare Company’s presentation, that’s all they get.
‘The Taming of the Shrew’
Bach Dor Shakespeare Company at Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Rd., East Lansing. Through Friday-Sunday through Sept. 26. $15. 517-333-2580.