Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wednesday Night in Sunnyside: Hip to Hip Theatre Company presents "Taming of the Shrew" in Sunnyside Gardens Park

It's always a pleasure to take the B24 bus to Sunnyside, and tonight was even more enjoyable than usual for we were able to catch a nicely-executed, swift-moving production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew by the Hip to Hip Theatre Company in the lush confines of the private Sunnyside Gardens Park.

We just missed the B-24 bus at our corner (Metropolitan and Lorimer), but since the route boomerangs eccentrically between Williamsburg and Greenpoint via Sunnyside, we just hopped on the G train two stops north and got the B-24 from the other end, at Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues, getting a block from Queens Boulevard quickly. (Luckily it wasn't a weekend; as of late June, the MTA has eliminated Saturday and Sunday service, an inconvenience for us and a real hardship for others.)

We walked up 47th Street to 39th Avenue; Sunnyside Gardens, the first planned community in the country, built in the 1920s, is stately and gorgeous on a summer evening. It's also where the concept of the superblock was born, so the blocks are long.

Sunnyside Gardens Park on 39th Avenue, just south of the Long Island Rail Road, is one of New York City's two private parks open to residents. But unlike Gramercy Park, anyone who pays the annual fee and devotes twelve hours of volunteer work, may be a member. We were grateful for the chance to come in for free. The three acres are lovely and there are really good recreational facilities for people of all ages.

Hip to Hip Theatre Company, founded in 2007, has been bringing free Shakespeare to the parks of underserved Queens, since then. Tonight was the opening of their season, and nearly every night between now and August 29, they'll be presenting Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew

at various locations, including Flushing Meadows Park, Forest Park, Totten Park, Queensbridge Park, Gantry Plaza State Park and more, including a stint in Southampton's Agawam Park. They did the same last year with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Taming of the Shrew is a problematic play due to its seeming endorsement of misogyny and male supremacy, which may have made audiences even in Shakespeare's day uneasy, which accounts for the frame story (Shakespeare calls it an "induction") of the main action being a play put on for a poor tinker being punk'd by a lord into thinking that he too is a noble and given a pageboy in women's clothes and told "she" is his wife.

Here the frame is eliminated, as it is in many productions, but it reinforces both the idea that our environment and the way we are treated by others determines our behavior — an idea that Katherine’s transformation from nasty scold to submissive wife in the main play also illustrates — and that our social status and gender/relationship roles, seen as rigidly determined, are essentially matters of appearance and perception that can be manipulated freely by deception, though never quite escaped.

Although this play ends, like almost all Shakespeare's comedies, with multiple brides and grooms, Katherine and Petruchio have been married for a while, and Taming of the Shrew also observes the post-wedding marital tensions for the two other couples (Bianca and Lucentio, the widow and Hortensio).

Our only previous experience seeing Taming of the Shrew was twenty years ago in Central Park, where we saw A.J. Antoon's unforgettable transposition of the play's action to the Wild West, complete with all the cliches of the American Western. It starred Morgan Freeman and Tracey Ullman in thrilling performances.

The scene where Freeman twirls his lasso and ropes Ullman like she's a runaway calf is indelibly fixed in our memory. (Antoon directed our other favorite Shakespeare productions, the Gay 90s Much Ado About Nothing in 1973 and the breathtaking Bahia-set Midsummer Night's Dream in 1987.)

That experience probably spoiled us a bit. The Hip to Hip Theatre Company's version, though, is a wonderful traditional production of the comedy; it's really old school, with men in tights and other Elizabethean conventions. For the first few scenes, the line readings seemed a bit over the top to us, the gestures slightly hammy, but we've become accustomed to more naturalistic performances rather than the classical version we got tonight.

Many people, including a colleague at one of the colleges where we teach who teaches a Shakespeare course every semester, absolutely despise any production of the Bard's plays not employing Renaissance dress and traditional staging. We're a product of the Sixties, and since our first Shakespeare-in-the-park production forty years ago, a hippie-ish Midsummer Night's Dream in Prospect Park, we've preferred rethinkings of the text and imaginative, radical transformations of the setting.

Anyway, that's our own prejudices, and that said, Elizabeth Carlson's direction of Shrew for Hip to Hip was perfectly delightful. The actors, led by Jason Marr as a buoyant, playful Petruchio and Joy Marr as a somewhat ironic Kate, are actually quite subtle and each of them had at least one moment of brilliant bits of business.

(The audience was asked not to take photographs and we complied, except for the pre-Shrew entertaining recitations of Shakespeare sonnets, songs and some swordplay, to give an idea of the setup and audience at Sunnyside Gardens Park.)

The director and actors avoid the problem of turning the comedy too dark because Petruchio is not played as an uncaring, dominating chauvinist and Kate's submission seems pragmatic and not entirely without tongue in cheek. The way the two principals interact - and we guess their own marriage may inform the way they interpret the roles - is the joy of this production.

Although the play is filled with lots of slapstick and an extraordinary number of deceptions in the subplots of Bianca and her suitors, the Hip to Hip's version of Taming of the Shrew is thoughtful and insightful in its treatment of what we think of as the play's main thrust: how people's happiness in society mostly depends upon adapting, at least in some way, to the social roles assigned to us, and that the smart person ultimately at least appears to accommodate, as Kate does, to social convention.

It was a gorgeous evening and if you can get out to a Queens park, you should see the Hip to Hip Theatre Company's work in the next couple of weeks. We felt lucky to see it, and then we were lucky to just catch (we ran) a speedy B-24 bus on 48th Street and Greenpoint Avenue heading to Williamsburg and got dropped off on our corner (Metropolitan and Leonard) about fifteen minutes later.

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