by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Shakespeare was back in a park last weekend, after an absence of several years. If you have been around this area for a while you may remember annual fall Shakespeare productions, by Theatre Jacksonville, in downtown Metropolitan Park. You may also remember that these outdoor productions were at times very challenging for directors, actors, and audiences due to unfriendly elements, such as heavy winds, soaking rains, and humid heat, which eventually led to the theatre moving its tribute to the Bard to its playhouse in San Marco.
The weekend performances of The Taming of the Shrew by the UNF Department of English on April 16 & 17 at Russell Park in Atlantic Beach were actually the last of six performances; the first four were done on the University of North Florida campus at the Robinson Theater and outdoors on the University Green. The large troupe appeared energized and put extra effort into its farewell to the Shrew or at least it seemed that way to the audience. And we were very happy to once again experience Shakespeare outdoors, under the soaring pines of a beautiful park during a balmy spring evening.
Mr. Shakespeare wrote almost 40 plays, and scholars could argue for days, or for entire academic careers, about which are his best. Most would include Othello, King Lear, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is considered his best comedy. The Taming of the Shrew, noted for innovative interpretations over the years, is certainly one of the most popular and most accessible of the plays for modern audiences.
Director Dr. Pam Monteleone, the inspiration behind this version, pulled out all the stops to load this Shrew with humorous theatre shtick so that it is light fun from curtain to curtain. Yet, the good Doctor has remained true to the written word of Shakespeare. This cast clearly understood the meaning of the text and used excellent diction and projection, combined with characterization and action so that everyone in the park could understand the words and storyline.
The play was set in the present and the late 1950s at a mid-sized university somewhere in the Northeast. The costumes, by Brandi Hitchew, Wendy Goldberg (and the cast) covered a wide range of styles. A large wooden chest made it possible to complete many changes on-stage. Informal college garb reflected the times with preppy tops, skirts, and pants, along with saddle shoes, argyle sweaters, leather jackets, and print dresses. More formal attire included suits and fitted dresses with strings of pearls. Plus, unexpected touches designed to delight the audience appeared throughout, including costumes for cross-dressers, a superman cape, and ruby-red shoes.
Musical Director Cammy Lewis and Choral Director Craig Morgan infused the production with snippets of 1950 songs that reflected romantic love at that time. We heard portions of songs we never hear on the radio any longer than can only be found in an oldies collection. Songs like “Devil or Angel”, “You Belong to Me”, “Going to the Chapel” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” just to name a few, gave us a musical history lesson to go along with the lessons of taming a shrew. Samson Mandrick, playing Hortensio, was dressed like Elvis and frequently burst into song with the guitar he carried.
We’re going to avoid a long plot summary about the romantic resolution of the lengthy battle between the fortune-seeing Petrucio and the ill-tempered Katherina, along with other romantic outcomes among friends and family members. If you are totally unfamiliar with the plot, may we suggest you find a copy of the 1967 movie of the same name starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The move is excellent, but not nearly as much fun as UNF’s version.
To single out each excellent individual would merely re-state the cast list but Chris Williams (Petruchio) and Ronica Arntzen (Katherina) were central as the protagonists around which the action revolved. Others in this large cast included; Robert Balcom (Vincentio), Jackie Benson (Tranio), Paige Bentley (Nathaniel), Emily Britton (Joseph) Jacob Devaney( Curtis) Chris Dickinson (Biondello), Katie Gile (Fashion Designer), Zeke Grant (Gremio), Lily Hickey (Bianca) Robby McChargue (Grumio) Craig Morgan(Chorus), Christina Morales (Chorus) Sara Raiskin (Baptista), Lauren Sloan (Sign Girl), Andre Strong (Merchant), and Jacob Victor (Lucentio).
The outdoor set by Mike Peck was a platform with stairs at the front and sides and a set of bleachers in the rear for the chorus. The design allowed rapid entrances and exits, along with audience seating on three sides. Furnishing and props were simple, such as a bar for the initial scene and a large potted plant to suggest a garden. Sign Girl Lauren Sloan used placards to advise the audience as locations changed, a very helpful device for outdoor settings.
While any Shakespeare purist in the audience may have been having heart failure to see his work given anything but a traditional treatment, the audience, including your favorite critics loved it. We have seen The Taming of the Shrew done with the cast preoccupied with issues of sexism and seething with malice and and it was refreshing to see a brighter version.
Kudos to the designer of the program that had good biographies of all the participants, on and off the stage, and contained an excellent plot summary so that even a Shakespeare novice could easily follow the action. Thanks as well to the University of North Florida for making this a FREE, event. Free is greatly appreciated these days. Thanks also to the Atlantic Beach Arts Council for providing the lovely setting for this production in Russell Park. Dr. Pam, everyone appreciated your excellent direction and also your concern that everyone could see and hear this wonderful production.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW theatre review
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM