Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of The Taming of the Shrew is a delightful romp of quick-witted dialog and rollicking physical comedy. With their commitment to presenting Shakespeare’s work with “the staging conditions, spirit, and atmosphere created by Shakespeare’s theatre company during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods,” BSF makes one of the great works of classical theatre as accessible to modern audiences as the players at The Globe made it to the groundlings in Ye Olde Days.
Seriously, if Baltimore Shakespeare Factory taught your high school literature class, chances are you’d be a much bigger fan of the Bard.
True to their mission of authenticity, BSF’s talented actors play multiple roles, often crossing genders borders in doing so, and use Shakespeare’s actual words, not language updated for easier consumption. The cast’s deep understanding of the text and expert presentation of the dialog make it easy to follow. There are no elaborate sets and very minimal props; the house lights are kept on for the entire show; and the players reach across that imaginary “fourth wall” and engage the audience directly.
In the 17th century, an afternoon at The Globe was more akin to a modern day at the ballpark than the highfalutin spectacle we think of as theatre today. There was the main event, but also plenty of festive extras like musicians playing during breaks in the program, vendors selling snacks, and direct interactions with the audience. BSF continues this tradition, encouraging the audience to arrive 30 minutes before curtain – not so tuxedoed ushers with flashlights can show you to your seat, but because there’s music and announcements to hear; raffle tickets to buy; and opportunities to get drinks and treats at the “Shakespeare Mall” just off stage right.
Oh! And tomatoes. How could I forget the tomatoes? For a few bucks, you can buy a basket of (foam) tomatoes to wing onstage if a character is being a despicable jerk or if (gasp!) an actor forgets what to say and calls “Line?” While for some companies, calling for a line would be the Actor’s Nightmare – a death sentence of unprofessionalism – here, it’s just part of the fun… and a completely understandable predicament since the entire cast had only five (5!) rehearsals before opening night. Yup, another bit of authenticity. Actors at The Globe were given scandalously short preparation time, so BSF put this whole show together in less time than you could binge-watch Kiss Me Kate, Deliver Us from Eva and 10 Things I Hate About You. Impressively, the cast only called for Lines three times during the performance I saw. The leftover tomatoes rained down on them during curtain call like squishy roses at an opera.
The story of The Taming of the Shrew is a familiar one. We have 2 sisters from a wealthy family, both beautiful and of marriageable age. Charming Bianca, played by Tegan Williams as appealingly demure, yet slyly sassy – is every suitor’s dream. The problem is that her dad, Baptista Minola – portrayed with amusing exasperation by Ben Fisler – insists that before sweet Bianca may be courted, his elder daughter, the much less agreeable Katherina (“Kate”), must first be wed. A group of clever husband-wannabes, each adeptly performed by the BSF cast, concoct a plan with their servants to secretly woo Bianca while their brave champion, Petruchio, sets to win the hand… and substantial dowry… of acid-tongued Kate.
The energetic interplay between Kate (dazzlingly embodied by Kathryn Zoerb) and Petruchio (the rakish Ian Blackwell Rogers) was a joy to watch. It’s hard to believe that in only 5 rehearsals, they were able to not only perfect the timing of their biting, back-and-forth verbal sparring but also to engender a subtle chemistry between these unlikely partners. The skill with which Zoerb showed Kate’s feelings and behavior evolve over the course of the show was both realistic and respectful. On its face, this evolution tends to raise my feminist hackles, but it is well-defended in Director Tom Delise’s witty and sensible Director’s Note in the program, which houses beautifully designed graphics by Designer/Publicist Lynne Menefee. In the end, Kate seems less beaten down or ‘tamed’ than determined to make a go of her marriage even if it means humoring her scheming hubby.
Other performances of note include Shannon Ziegler, as the bold imposter Tranio, and the ensemble that set the frame of the play at its start. Jessica Lynne Byars’ drunken Christopher Sly was hilarious – and only the first of what seemed like 100 distinct characters she portrayed throughout the show. Also in this segment, earlier-mentioned Ian Blackwell Rogers played the reluctantly cross-dressed and manhandled “wife” of Christopher Sly so very convincingly that I actually had to contact BSF to confirm it was he in the fetching dress and not another actor.
Speaking of dresses, accolades are definitely due to Costume Designer April Forrer, who outfitted the cast in lush period-appropriate garb that fit perfectly with the needs of the show and with BSF’s dedication to authenticity. Rounding out the excellent Artistic and Production Staff were Rachel Tilley in the ever-under appreciated yet absolutely essential post of Stage Manager and Jamie Horrell, who as Music Director, selected a pitch perfect mix of popular music for the affair. Before and after the show and during intermission, the audience was treated to thematically-linked songs ranging from Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” to The Rascals 1966 #1 hit “Good Lovin” to the Proclaimers’ anthemic “500 Miles,” which was just one of the songs that showcased actor Alex Smith’s fantastic voice.
The recent boon of outstanding theatre companies in Baltimore coupled with the currently-running Charm City Fringe Festival presents theatre-goers with a wealth of deserving options for their time and money in the next few weeks.
Take the time to put Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s The Taming of the Shrew on your ‘Must See’ list. It’s classical theatre that’s fun, fast-paced, bawdy and visually beautiful… and probably the only place in town where you won’t get arrested for throwing fake vegetables at performing artists. What more could you want?
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.
The Taming of the Shrew plays through November 22, 2015 at The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, performing at The Great Hall at St. Mary’s Community Center – 900 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.
Pre-Show entertainment begins approximately 30 minutes prior to curtain time and an entertaining, non-mandatory, Talk Back with the actors follows each performance.