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Wiving it wealthily: (L-R) Kim Stauffer and Eric Martin Brown in Taming of the Shrew.

True Love, at a Price

By Kathryn Lange

The Taming of the Shrew

By William Shakespeare, Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill

Capital Repertory Theatre, Through March 23

 

The central tale of Shakespeare’s classic comedy The Taming of the Shrew has been reshaped and retold again and again since it was penned more than four centuries ago. The story of a conniving young man’s attempts to court a woman who furiously resists his wooing is timeless. It is not the story itself, but the Elizabethan framework that makes The Taming of the Shrew challenging to produce today. By contemporary standards, the lovely Bianca, object of the town’s affections, seems primly vapid. Her “devilish” older sister, Kate—wooed only for her dowry—comes across as feisty; her sharp wit and fierce individuality almost balance out her volatile temper. Today the “shrew” seems attractive, and Petruchio’s attempts to “tame” her, depriving her of sleep, food, and personal opinion, would be considered spousal abuse.

Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill is clearly aware of the challenges presented by the classic script, and has chosen to contemporize the tale (not the language) by staging the production in late-1950s Italy. Mancinelli-Cahill brings Shrew to ’50s Padua with carefully executed detail. Ted Simpson’s set—a cobblestone main playing space with a large door up center, flanked by smaller doorways with balconies above them—easily transitions from location to location, from indoors to out. Mancinelli-Cahill keeps the shifting furniture simple, quickly set between scenes by servants, and makes nice use of the balcony spaces (particularly in the second act, when the balcony railing echoes a jail cell or a cage). It is clever and effective staging for a large show on an intimate stage.

The costumes, designed by Barbara Wolfe, are colorful and kitschy, and set the tone from the opening. From cotton-candy and crinoline dresses that make Bianca (Ginny Meyers Lee) look like an airy confection to Kate’s trimly tailored but flowing blue pants, the costumes define not only era, but character, giving the show a boost of accessibility.

Easy opening banter between young aristocrat Lucentio (Chris Bresky) and his servant Tranio (Michael Keyloun) culminates in a classic role-reversal a la The Prince and the Pauper, and a frantic onstage costume change punctuates the transition. Lucentio dons orange and brown argyle, too-short pants and horn-rimmed glasses and transforms into the stereotypical studious ’50s nerd. Bresky’s innocent eagerness and bold physicalities have the audience laughing from the top, thanks in part to the tight counterpoint of Kayloun’s smartly playful scheming, which remains consistently sharp.

The leading players adeptly convey Mancinelli-Cahill’s stylized concept. Capital Repertory veteran Terry Rabine balances class, heart and business with glint-eyed ease. Myers Lee offers a Bianca reminiscent of Sandra Dee before the leather-and-spandex transformation. Brian Wallace makes Hortensio believable in the ’50s, sometimes suave, sometimes discomfited. As Petruchio’s madcap servant, Grumio, Oliver Wadsworth provides comic relief for the comedy, and, while occasionally over-the-top, he is wildly energetic and provides many of the shows biggest laughs. All re-create the broad physicalities and highly presentational style of ’50s film and television—and well.

Manicinelli-Cahill’s focus on the ’50s concept makes the production visually tight, fun and familiar. But it is also the show’s greatest downfall. The presentational style—fraught with mugging, indication and slapstick gesticulation—delightfully conveys text and punch lines, and keeps the audience laughing, but it leaves little room for subtext, honestly or introspection, all things that the script needs to function in the contemporary moral climate.

On their first meeting, Kate (Kim Stauffer) and Petruchio (Eric Martin Brown) are permitted a fresh and complex take on the initial argument, and play it nicely. A love-at-first-sight double take makes the ensuing battle of wits more a fight against their own desires than a fight with each other. Nicely staged by fight choreographer Parker Cross, the scene is not a brawl, but a clash of expectation and sexual tension.

Unfortunately, it is one of the very few moments of complexity, and the dynamic of desire is quickly lost. It quickly becomes a nearly abusive battle, with little emotional undercurrent. Even Petruchio’s soliloquies are played to the audience; he asks, “Know you a better way to tame a shrew?,” shrugs, and waits for an answer from the crowd. What has the potential to be an introspective moment of regret at his behavior becomes an empty and unanswered question.

It seems that Manicinelli-Cahill is trying to convey that no one was tamed, that the two found true, healthy love, and each is better for it. It’s a potentially good message, but one that is not enforced through the production. Stauffer is able to sneak a few moments of heartfelt undertones, particularly before the wedding of the mismatched pair. But overall, the focus on the ’50s trades subtext for accessibility, complexity for camp, and heart for humor.

If you’re looking for a light, fun evening with lots of well-deserved laughs, this is a skillfully executed production. If you’re looking for a meaningful new telling of a complex tale, you will likely leave wanting more.

The Beast Inside

Bat Boy: The Musical

Story and book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, music and lyrics by Lawrence O’Keefe, directed by Tom Heckert, musical direction by Theresa Fitzmaurice, choreography by Jeffrey Scott

Schenectady Light Opera Company, through March 16

From its opening seconds—darkness embraced by the eerie yet plaintive high-note cries of bats on the wing is suddenly pierced by white flashlight beams and the shouts of three teenagers—Schenectady Light Opera Company’s Bat Boy: The Musical engages the audience with a very funny, lively production. Inspired by the Weekly World News tabloid’s ubiquitous “Bat Boy” features—he was the Carmen Sandiego of the conspiracy theorist/X-Files set—Bat Boy: The Musical is part Rocky Horror, part My Fair Lady, part Leave It to Beaver, and is just as weird and serious as its inspiration. The late Weekly World News (the last issue ran Aug. 27, 2007) lives on in this spirited, goofy, and yet oddly earnest and poignant musical; any work that ends with its cast singing “No more need to hide!/Know your Bat Boy./Love your Bat Boy/Don’t deny your beast inside!” has a big heart, no matter its species.

Backed by the strong playing of musical director Theresa Fitzmaurice’s five-piece band (Rob Aronstein on keyboards, Sam Farkas on a blistering electric guitar, Stephen Aldi on bass, Andrew Hearn’s strong percussion and Fizmurice’s piano), director Tom Heckert creates a fast-paced, smart production and gets solid work out of his cast of 15. The story may be 1950s B sci-fi movie camp, but the director has his cast playing it straight. Occasional moments of tongue-in-cheek or doofy excess take the air out of the production in its second act, but until then, SLOC’s Bat Boy: The Musical is excellent.

The 21 songs have a high-pitched energy that carries them even through the indulgences, and the performances often are stellar. As the eponymous character, Sean Patrick Fagan is fantastic. Emitting guttural noises while hanging upside down in his cage, he seems more bat than boy. Fagan superbly portrays Batboy’s transition to civility, from learning to speak English from the June Cleaverish Mrs. Parker (sweetly sung and acted by Laurie Larson) to his splendid enunciation while wooing the hostile town of Hope Falls, W. Va. (nothing is coincidental in this musical, and symbolism is allegory-heavy). “Let Me Walk Among You,” sung to the attendants of a Hope Falls revival meeting, wouldn’t be that out of place in a contemporary musical translation of the New Testament.

The protean Fagan is aided by Bat Boy’s inappropriate soulmate, Shelley Parker (a vivacious Molly McGrath who not only can do the dreaded American Idol belt-the-high-notes-until-you-leave-a-welt, but can actually sing with emotional honesty, too). The duo’s duet, “Inside Your Heart,” almost redeems the second act from the simultaneous breakdown of the musical’s book and Heckert’s staging. There’s some clunky backstory that sucks the air out of the theater during an extended flashback, and a clunkier orgy that almost literally “jumps the shark,” with various cast members in bad team-mascot costumes miming interspecies breeding (think of a cross between bestiality and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood).

But the aforementioned closing, the stellar first act, and Fagan’s performance more than make up for shortcomings in act two. SLOC’s Bat Boy: The Musical deserves to be seen: Don’t dream it, be it, or, rather, “don’t deny your beast inside.”

—James Yeara

 


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