"Shrew" at Cal Shakes--a Production with Pizazz

Erica Sullivan is Katherine and Slate Holmgren is Petruchio in Shana Cooper ’s
 production of The Taming of the Shrewphoto by Kevin Berne.

The opening of the Taming of the Shrew at Cal Shakes is very much like being in Las Vegas.  The opening music and set design by Scott Dougan are just fabulous.  We see a Las Vegas-type billboard and a minimal set with a second story platform with a spiral staircase leading below.  The show opens with a wonderful song and dance number with all of the men in the cast wearing tuxedos and introducing Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson) as a high-fashion stripper dressed in gold and her sister Katherine (Erica Sullivan) in a gold bathing suit as a reluctant sex symbol.  In so doing, Director Shana Cooper replaces Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker, with her disco beauty pageant that sets up Erica Sullivan's Katherine resentment of her statuesque sister, Bianca. This is a plastic universe in which shallowness is worshipped and substance devalued.

All throughout the production, Shana Cooper's direction shines through for its cleverness and comic timing. The whole cast is wonderful.  Slate Holmgren is very charismatic as Petruchio, Katherine's suitor and as Katherine, the shrew, Erica Sullivan's transformation from impossible shrew to obedient wife is very believable. Shana Cooper has selected some of the Bay Area's best actors for her supporting cast. Rod Gnapp is Baptista, father of both Katherine and Bianca, who has promised not to let the younger daughter, Bianca, wed until Kate has found a husband. Dan Clegg is Tranio, Lucentio's servant who accompanies him from Pisa, wry and comical, he plays an important part in his master's charade.  He assumes Lucentio's identity and bargains with Baptista for Bianca's hand.  Lucentio is played by Nicholas Pelczar.  He disguises himself as a tutor to get close to Bianca who eventually falls for him.  Dan Hiatt plays two roles, both Grumio, Petruchio's servant and the fool of the play, a source of much comic relief. He also plays Vincentio who is on his way to Padua to see his son Lucentio.  Joan Mankin is wonderful in multiple roles of Curtis Pedant and a widow making each character come alive with much physical comedy.  Danny Scheie steals the show again as Gremio, Bianca's elderly suitor.  Liam Vincent plays Hortensio, an older rival to Gremio for the hand of Bianca with both style and grace.  Last but not least is Theo Black as Biondello, Lucentio's second servant who assists his master and Tranio in carrying out their plot.  

Director Shana Cooper deserves a lot of credit for entertaining us with extravagant physical comedy, lots of slapstick, high spirits and sheer gaiety with a fantastic musical background throughout. To add to the pizazz were Katherine O'Neill's costume design and Erika Chong Shuch's choreography.  Director, cast and crew take us on a joyful ride!  

The Taming of the Shrew runs September 21-October 16, 2011. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. 

Performances are held at Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda, CA (just off Highway 24 at the California Shakespeare Theatre Way/Wilder Road exit, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel).  Tickets are available at the Cal Shakes Box Office, 701 Heinz Avenue, Berkeley, CA, tel. 510-548-9666 or online at www.calshakes.org.

Flora Lynn Isaacson