Jack Lampert had whittled the choices down to “Our Town” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” but Varland Owens wasn’t having it.
“We were going to do ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ and that was it,” Owens says. “I told him that last year.”
Owens is a 15-year-old member of Theatre Baton Rouge’s Young Actors Program. She’s not the director; Lampert is, and Lampert knows Owens’ love of William Shakepeare’s comedy.
She was 2 the first time she saw it. That’s when she started quoting it.
Now she’ll get to quote it on stage as Katherina when the Young Actors Program opens “Shrew” on Thursday, Sept. 13, in the Studio Theatre.
“This is something Varland has always wanted to do, so there was no way she was going to let us do anything else,” says Lampert, who also is Theatre Baton Rouge’s educational director. “But this is different from the Shakespeare comedies we’ve done in the past. They’ve been light, and though ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a comedy, it deals with some heavy subjects.”
As far as Owens is concerned, it’s all a part of the perfect story starring the perfect heroine.
“Katherina is awesome. I love her so much,” Owens says. “She’s a more extreme version of myself.”
Shakespeare wrote “Shrew” between 1590 and 1592, but Lampert is setting it in the 1950s.
“We’re not changing the language or putting in modern references,” he says. “But we’re finding that Shakespeare works well in this setting.”
The play begins with Baptista Minola, a rich, Paduan merchant. He has two daughters and is determined to marry off his oldest, Katherina, before his youngest, Bianca. The trouble is all the men are gaga over Bianca, while Katherina’s disposition scares them.
Petruchio, a fortune-hunting scoundrel, decides to take on the challenge.
The story inspired Cole Porter’s classic Broadway hit, “Kiss Me Kate,” a musical Owens coaxed her on-stage suitor, Landon Simpson, into watching.
“That’s how I became familiar with the story,” says Simpson, 15. “As for my character in the original version of this play, I can say that Katherina is mean, but Petruchio is meaner than she is.”
The comedy arises from their battle of wills.
Matt Miyagi, 17, plays Katherina’s dad, Baptista, and 14-year-old Brooke Bell plays the rich widow with a superiority complex.
“She’s rich, she’s stuck up and she thinks she’s better than Katherina,” Bell says. “She’s nothing like me, and it’s fun playing someone so mean. It’s fun being the bad guy, because the bad guy gets to do whatever she wants on stage.”
The play marks the beginning of Miyagi’s final season with the Young Actors Program, which offers classes, workshops and productions to students ages 13-18. The thought upsets Owens.
“We all agreed we wouldn’t talk about that,” she says. “We’ve been in this program together for a long time.”
But there’s no room for tears on stage, only lots of action and comedy as Petruchio tries to tame Katherina, thereby winning her love.