There are various ways to tame Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, a comedy with a thorny wife-subjugation ending. Cole Porter turned it into the musical Kiss Me, Kate. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's approach comes closer to an Elizabethan episode of Upstairs, Downstairs.
Love is not only in the air among the upper classes in director Patrick Kilpatrick's production, it also infects the servants. The play concerns two sisters -- sweet Bianca (Ashly Ruth Fishell) and older, vile-tempered Katherine (Kate Michelsen-Graham). The sisters' father, Baptista (Steve Beall), has forbidden Bianca from marrying before Kate does, and older sis' prospects look slim until money-hungry, determined Petruchio (BJ Gailey) comes along.
While assorted suitors vie for Bianca's hand and Petruchio attempts to woo Kate, Baptista's servants spy on the proceedings through the open windows and doorways of Chesapeake Shakespeare's al fresco summer home -- the picturesque 19th-century ruins of Ellicott City's Patapsco Female Institute. And one particularly ardent pair of love-struck servants steal a kiss at every opportunity.
This increased attention to servants especially applies to Tranio, servant to Bianca's true love, Lucentio (Scott Graham). At least, Tranio is what Shakespeare called him. Director Kilpatrick changes the name to "Trania" and the gender to female. Granted, there's plenty of precedent for cross-dressing in Shakespeare's comedies, not to mention the fact that all of the female roles were originally played by males.
But despite Jennifer Crooks' able performance, this gender-bending complicates instead of elucidates the action. In Kilpatrick's interpretation, Trania harbors an unrequited love for her master, giving his eventual union with Bianca a bittersweet tinge. Furthermore, Trania's disappointment implies that while love between people of differing temperaments may be possible, love between members of opposing classes is not.
It's an interesting slant, but one that ultimately detracts from the main event -- the embattled relationship between Kate and Petruchio (conveyed with more volume than romantic passion by Michelsen-Graham and Gailey). Nor is the augmented Trania subplot the only distraction. When Kate delivers her final, controversial speech, instructing wives to "place your hands below your husband's foot," Michelsen-Graham brings an admirable, light tone to it (suggesting that even she doesn't take this seriously), but Kilpatrick's direction places her at the rear of the stage, upstaged by other actors.
Chesapeake Shakespeare has mounted Shrew in rotating repertory with King Lear -- contrasting a comedy about marital love with a tragedy about parental love. It's an ambitious undertaking for the company, which is scheduled to present As You Like It and Henry V in repertory next summer as part of the Shakespeare in Washington festival.
The haunting beauty of the outdoor setting at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park would be an asset to almost any production. But in the case of Taming of the Shrew, excessive attention to lesser characters suggests that the company has been unable to see the forest for the trees.
Taming of the Shrew is presented in repertory with King Lear at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City, weekends through July 9. Tickets are $25. For specific show times, call 410-752-3994 or visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com.
'Piazza' on MPT
A trip to New York is the only way to see the musicals that competed for Tony Awards this past Sunday, but you can catch one of last year's loveliest competitors, Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza, at 8 p.m. tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67). The "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcast stars Tony winner Victoria Clark as an American mother traveling in Italy with her mentally challenged daughter (Katie Clarke).