For three summers, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has mounted an outdoor production at the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City. This year the troupe offers a double bill: a comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, alternating with the tragedy King Lear.
The Shrew is given a bright, funny production by director Patrick Kilpatrick and a lively cast. It is the story of a wealthy man, Baptista, and his daughters, the rebellious, disagreeable Katharine and the quiet, obedient Bianca.
Bianca has many admirers, but Baptista insists his elder and more troublesome daughter must be married first.
Nobody wants to marry Katharine.
Meanwhile, two of Bianca's suitors, Lucentio and Hortensio, scheme to get access to her by posing as, respectively, a Latin teacher and a music teacher. (A third suitor, old Gremio, plainly doesn't have a chance; he's on hand just to provide comedy.)
Petruchio, a friend of Hortensio, arrives in town, looking for a wife with a hefty dowry. Hortensio, delighted, tells him about Katharine. He makes it plain that she's a vicious, bad-tempered woman.
Not to worry, says Petruchio; he feels sure he can handle her.
Baptista willingly gives his consent, Petruchio and Katharine are married, and Petruchio embarks on his campaign to gain the upper hand. Shakespeare manages, by the final curtain, to turn the two combatants into a happy couple.
While he's at it, he wraps up the matter of Bianca and her suitors.
The playwright's vivid picture of a man subjugating his wife has been making people laugh for four centuries, but, more recently, the laughter has become increasingly guilty.
Directors have tried various ways of making the script acceptable to modern audiences. The device adopted by Kilpatrick is to show Petruchio and Katharine falling in love at first sight. The stubborn Katharine thus has the best of motives for her eventual surrender.
Kilpatrick's direction is imaginative and detailed. He has drilled his actors to bring out the humor of their lines.
BJ Gailey makes a cheerful, confident, charming Petruchio, Kate Michelson-Graham a forceful Katharine. Bianca seems to be a modest, dutiful girl, but Ashly Ruth Fishell shows she can be a flirtatious minx behind her father's back.
Satisfying performances are turned in by Jacob Rothermel (Hortensio), Scott Graham (Lucentio), Frank B. Moorman (Lucentio's father, Vincentio), Steve Beall (Baptista), Frank Mancino (Gremio) and the rest of the cast.
Shakespeare's plot is further complicated by Kilpatrick's direction. When Lucentio poses as Bianca's Latin teacher, he orders his servant, Tranio, to impersonate Lucentio himself. Tranio, he knows, is a clever, personable man who can ingratiate himself with Bianca's father.
In this production Kilpatrick turns Tranio into Trania (in a diligent performance by Jennifer Crooks).
So the audience has to accept a woman, Trania, posing as a man, Lucentio. That's not new in Shakespeare, but the director doesn't leave it at that. He makes it clear from Trania's actions and facial expressions that she is hopelessly in love with her employer, Lucentio.
This throws a new situation into the play. Kilpatrick keeps the concept of Trania's unrequited love going through the show, interpreting the dialogue to bear it out.
Lovers of Shakespeare may or may not welcome this innovation. Kilpatrick has given them material for a lively discussion. Meanwhile, his production of The Taming of the Shrew is enjoyable entertainment for a summer evening.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" on Sunday, June 18, 23, 24 and July 1, 2, 8 and 9 at the Patapsco Female Institute, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (except 4 p.m. June 24) and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.chesapeake shakespeare.com. Information: 410-752-3994.