Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thursday Night on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument

Everything seemed to work perfectly tonight in the Hudson Warehouse's blithe, colorful presentation of The Taming of the Shrew at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, not least the magic which kept the ominous clouds and claps of thunder at bay for the entire performance, with not a drop of rain falling on the parade of clowns, self-admitted or not, who populate Shakespeare's battle-of-the-sexes frolic.

This was the sixth Hudson Warehouse performance we've seen in the past three years, and the company's work is consistently excellent. It's interesting for us as a part of the audience to see actors multiple times in very different roles, inhabiting disparate characters onstage.

Our own "acting" experience is limited to a 1966 summer class at the Little Theatre School on Flatbush and Caton Avenues in Brooklyn (several years ago, our boyfriend in Miami discovered that our teacher, Joanie Edwards, is still teaching!), two senior-year semesters of Advanced Drama at Midwood High School in 1967-68 with Harris Sarney (later, longtime principal of Bayside High School), and an Acting class with Catherine Myers at Brooklyn College in 1970. So we are amazed at the range of the actors in the Hudson Warehouse company.

The Taming of the Shrew is not one of the masterpieces in Shakespeare's canon, with a lot of one-note characters, and the last time we saw the play, we detailed our own and others' problems with this comedy of good and bad manners. But it also can be very entertaining when done right, as in this rewarding production.

The Taming of the Shrew is a simple-to-understand farce and there's a lot of rollicking slapstick comedy with a number of clownish characters. But it's the conception of the production and the quality of the actors that can make or break the show, and the Hudson Warehouse has made this workhorse of a farce seem truly fresh, buoyant, and absorbing.

The director, Jesse Michael Mothershed, wisely dumped the prologue, and has set the play in what seems somewhere between the 1930s and early 1950s, judging by the costumes (terrific designs by Emily Rose Parman).

The pacing is fast, and the rapid-fire verbal fireworks and the knockabout physical comedy keep the play moving.

Vince Phillip as Petruchio is no dreamboat, but his virile arrogance and obvious immediate romantic feelings for the obdurate "cursed Kate" (played with panche by Amanda Renee Baker, whom we saw last month as Masha in The Seagull). Apart from all the fun, for us the pivotal moment in this production was when Katherine and Petruchio first set eyes on one another.

The chemistry is immediate and stuns both of them, and from that moment, you never doubt that whatever the intense ferocity of their battles, this is a couple who are deeply attracted to one another sexually and more. At least to the audience, it's obvious that Petruchio, to his surprise, actually loves Katherine.

Kate and Petruchio clearly admire one another's bluntness, and during the "taming" process, as the slinky, haughty, handsome Kate is reduced to a bedraggled mess, Petruchio never seems all that cruel; it's clear to us, and probably to Kate, that his bad temper is somewhat feigned and that his solicitousness toward his bride prevents him from crossing the line, even as he denies her more than a spoonful of food and makes maddening, contradictory demands of her.

The play's buffoons are some of the best we've seen. There are moments when the mercurial, clownish physical antics and alternating exasperation and resentful spite of Petruchio's servant Grumio threatens to run away with the show due to Robert Colpitts' limber, hilarious performance: he seems to have eight legs like a spider, only they're going in all directions at once.

Nathan Oesterle's comic flamboyance as a fussy Biondello gives another, more cerebral and less slapstick, level to the clowning,

as do Nick DeVita as Tranio, impersonating his master with insouciance and intelligence, and Roger Dale Stude as the hapless schlemiel Hortensio. (Both actors were excellent last month in The Seagull.)

As the ingenue couple whose subplot drives much of play's clowning apart from Petruchio and Kate, Sydney Stanton made a fetching, giggly and somewhat mischievous Bianca, and Chris Behan as Lucentio was likable, devoted and shrewd. Their chemistry was evident, too, though it's of a different nature altogether than that of Bianca's older sister and her seemingly tyrannical husband.

David Palmer Brown never ceases to amaze us. This is the fifth time we've seen him in a Hudson Warehouse production, and his chameleon-like ability to thoroughly play such different characters seems remarkable. Here he's a hearty if somewhat befuddled Baptista.

Demetri Bonaros gets a lot of laughs as the creaky old codger, Gremio; like the other performers, his acting is never coy or self-conscious, as it easily could be in a role that lends itself too easily to easy laughs. Throughout the play, the laughs, and there are a lot, are earned.

But it's not all knockabout comedy; there's a nice underlying mood of sweetness inhabiting Padua. This is a play without villains, and everyone, including the deceivers -- and that's just about everyone -- seems to have a big heart.

Sarah Doudna effectively plays both the sneering Widow and the Tailor; David Allison DeWitt was funny as a fusty Pedant; and Charles Baker makes a late appearance, playing Vincentio with a slightly faded sense of authority. There's an autumnal feel as the play's various subplots move toward resolution, and beneath all the hijinks, you see real love in all its disguises.

As we said, at times during the last hour, it seemed as if we all, actors, those behind the scenes at Hudson Warehouse, and the audience on the steps of the monument's north portico, would all suddenly be drenched in a tremendous downpour. That the rain held off until the performance reached its satisfying conclusion seemed something of a miracle. We're grateful it did, and to everyone connected with this valuable theater company and its work.

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