The battle of the sexes isn't pretty, but it's pretty funny in Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." This bawdy comedy is receiving a suitably silly outdoor production by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City.
Although the loudest arguments in the play are between Kate, a shrewish woman, and Petruchio, the belligerent man determined to wed her, much of the conflict has parental roots. That's because Baptista, a wealthy Lord of Padua, has decided that Kate, his eldest daughter, must be married before he allows his sweet-natured youngest daughter, Bianca, to marry.
As Baptista, Frank B. Moorman looks appropriately stern, but the actor needs to project his voice with more consistent authority. When this actor turns his back to at least part of the audience, good luck hearing what he's saying. Like the freewheeling production as a whole, this performance would benefit from a bit more discipline.
Fortunately, the actors playing the daughters and their various suitors generally prove to be more reliable. From the moment she enters in an assertively red dress, Molly Moores makes it clear that this Kate will not be easily tamed. If Moores' interpretation of this lively role seems to hit the same few strident notes, it's a reminder that this early comedy by Shakespeare is not known for psychological nuance.
This particular Kate is well-paired on stage with Jose Guzman as Kate's suitor, Petruchio, who arrogantly pursues her for the sake of the substantial dowry that comes with Kate. He is so determined to tame her that his verbal abuse leads to him denying her food and sleep.
Among Shakespeare's plays, "Taming of the Shrew" is not exactly a feminist favorite. Male and female audience members alike were laughing at this roughest of courtships at the reviewed performance, however, so it seems like an occasion to put political correctness on hold for an evening. Just don't repeat some of the dialogue in your own home.
As Bianca, Lauren M. Davis does more than just look lovely in her light blue dress. Davis conveys her character's quiet hopefulness that she'll eventually become a bride.
"Taming of the Shrew" has a full roster of suitors and servants who engage in a ridiculously escalating series of courtship moves that involve disguised identities and motives.
Bianca's suitor Lucentio (James Jager), for instance, has two servants, Biondello (Vince Eisenson) and Tranio (Matthew Ancarrow), who are kept very busy with all this scheming.
In what amounts to a servant nearly stealing the show, Eisenson brings expert clowning skills to this role; moreover, the actor also plays two additional minor roles. His deftly controlled facial expressions are a delight to watch in all three of these parts.
Bianca's other suitors include Hortensio, whose obstacle-filled campaign to win her comes across in a performance by Greg Burgess that registers the extent to which love can make a fool of you.
Speaking of foolish behavior, director Ian Gallanar makes the entire production seem like a madcap circus. The play's Italian setting is spoofed by having characters occasionally slip into Italian accents that make them sound as if they took lessons from Chico Marx. Indeed, a lot of the language and, for that matter, the body language seem to be inspired by slapstick routines from the vaudeville era. This showbiz sensibility is reinforced by costume designer Kristina Lambdin, whose wonderfully witty outfits are weird combinations of colors, patterns and styles.
"Taming of the Shrew" admittedly is an unruly comedy that warrants a goofy staging, but this production sometimes pushes too far with it. Comic routines tend to be milked for more stage time than they merit. Likewise, the numerous contemporary pop music tunes woven into the show often seem forced and facile.
As is the case with any Shakespeare comedy, however, everything works out in the end. This staging is so eager to please that it does make you laugh.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Taming of the Shrew" runs through Aug. 4 at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Running with it in repertory through July 14 is "Antony and Cleopatra." Tickets are from $15 to $38; ages 18 and under are free, with a limit of two children per paying adult. Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.