Review: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at Exclamation Theater

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The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, one that has spurred argument and discord for over 400 years. Is the play as misogynistic as it often appears, or is its theme just a matter of interpretation? Exclamation Theater’s new production won’t settle any arguments, and it may not win over any detractors. But it has impressive style, and provides a good showcase for some talented performers.

Jessica Fields and Rodney Landis.
Jessica Fields and Rodney Landis.

If you think that Shakespeare plays are dull, drowsy affairs, you haven’t seen Jessica Fields playing Kate, the “shrew” of the title. She’s a dynamo – fierce, formidable, and boiling with rage and conviction as she faces off against Petruchio, the man who makes it his mission to marry her and bring her notorious temper under control. Fields has excellent vocal control and a determined attitude; her Kate gives as good as she gets, and then some. But her best scene comes late in the play – a wordless interlude when, simply through her facial expressions, we see her figure out how to deal with the problem that is Petruchio. Even without words, she’s as eloquent as Shakespeare was on his best day.

As Petruchio, Rodney Landis is genial and jovial; his Petruchio seems to be enjoying himself as he plays trick after trick designed to bring Kate under his control. It’s too bad that his Petruchio seems more in love with himself than with Kate. In the best productions of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio seems motivated, at least in part, by his affection for Kate; in this case, he treats his marriage to Kate as a lark. As a result, it’s hard to root for him, and hard to root for the marriage to be a success.

Director Patricia (Doc) Robinson-Linder has coaxed strong comic performances out of her supporting cast, especially Paul Them, doing a manic turn as Lucentio, and Robert Pacquiao Ruelan, who is sunny and sly as Lucentio’s servant Tranio. Gemma Farquhar is nicely demure as Kate’s fair sister Bianca, and Nick Lutwyche brings some suitable gravity to the role of her father Baptista.

All the actors do good jobs. Unfortunately, the limitations of the space in which the play is being presented – a general purpose room in a church basement – get in the way of the drama. There’s no backstage space, so actors must make their entrances and exits from the rear of the hall, robbing the scenes of energy and spontaneity. The lighting comes almost entirely from overhead fluorescent bulbs which cover the entire hall (including the audience seating area), so there are no lighting changes. There’s also no music played for transitions. As a result, the production is often sluggish because there’s nothing to break up the scenes. A couple of added running gags do lighten the tone, but they’re repeated so often that they wear out their welcome.

(There’s also no signage directing visitors to the entrance – I circled the building before finding the door – which is disorienting for theatergoers trying to make it to the show on time.)

The company of The Taming of the Shrew.
The Company of The Taming of the Shrew.

Special praise, however, should go to costume designer Mary Jane Murphy-Brown. She provides authentic-looking 16th century duds for the cast – elegant formal gowns for the women, breeches and stockings for the men, with feathered caps and slip-on shoes that provide the right accents. Her exceptional work gives this production a sense of grandeur.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission.

The Taming of the Shrew plays through May 7, 2017 at Exclamation Theater, Inc., performing at Nolan Hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church – 236 East Main Street, in Maple Shade, NJ. Tickets are available at the door.