Everyone knows William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” but chances are you have not seen anything like the enormously inventive production now playing at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival.
And how smart of the festival to turn the reins of the summer’s first production over to the talented Cripple Creek Theatre Company and the astonishing talents of director Emilie Whelan.
Madcap rascal Petruchio (Andy Vaught) has “come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” where he encounters the shrewish Kate (Devyn Tyler) imprisoned by her father’s edict — no one shall marry Bianca, Kate’s younger sister who is besieged with suitors, until the aggressive, confrontational Kate is married off.
The production claims to employ the concepts of “original practices” — an approach made popular by British director Tim Carroll, renowned for his “Twelfth Night” starring Mark Rylance as Olivia. “Original practices” essentially means not doing anything theatrically that Shakespeare, in his time, wouldn’t have.
I’m not sure this “Shrew” follows all of Carroll’s principles to the letter — but who cares! This is a fresh, highly enjoyable, accessible interpretation presented with dazzling physical dynamics and wonderful characterizations.
Two of Carroll’s tenets that Whelan does successfully include are minimalism (no requirement for complete props, for example). It's amazing what she does with a handful of chairs, a few platters and a rope.
Another is “shared light.” As in Shakespeare's day, the audience shares full light with the actors, encouraging audience members to assist in the performance rather than just observe it. Combined with in-the-round staging, it's a unique and freeing experience.
The problem with many energetic, rough-and-tumble productions is that clarity, precision and well-spoken language are garbled. Not here. As directed by Whelan, the action is polished, well-timed and verbally acute.
“Shrew” contains two of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes: the raucous battle of wits when Petruchio and Kate first meet, and Kate’s final speech, when she preaches wifely obedience and urges women to “place your hands below your husband’s feet.”
Under Whelan’s fresh direction, the first is hilarious, yet neatly layered. The second is absolutely revelatory.
Vocally resplendent, comically gifted, Vaught creates a crazed mountain man of Petruchio. Enthralling in every scene, he is simply terrific.
As Kate, Tyler is fierce, but never shrill, as she deftly wraps her anger around a hesitant vulnerability, saying more with her open listening than most actors communicate with words. It is a wonderful performance.
Together Vaught and Tyler give a master class in Shakespeare acting, and one can tell they’ve inspired the entire cast to their level of artistry.
The supporting cast of Khiry Armstead, Marie Becnel, Chris Lane, Donald Lewis, Jessica Amber Lozano, Cameron-Mitchell Ware and Philip Yiannopoulos give strong, delightful and distinct performances — which is impressive, because the actors are playing multiple roles and the characters are often in disguise.
When every actor is terrific, it's because the director has done an outstanding job of inspiring, empowering and shaping a creative rehearsal environment.
Assisted by Brian Coogan’s magical music, Whelan understands the nuance of every moment in the play, comic or otherwise, as she perfectly balances Shakespeare’s farcical intention with modern sensibilities.
Directing a play in the round is far more difficult than it would seem. It’s like composing actor arrangements on a rotating plinth. Not only are Whelan’s well-staged sight-lines expert, but her inventive stage pictures illustrate the drama of every moment brilliantly.
If you want to turn young people on to theater — or better yet to Shakespeare — bring your children in droves to the Lupin Theatre.
The genius of Whelan’s creation is she understands that long before Shakespeare’s play was controversial, it was an absolute romp.
'Taming of the Shrew'
WHEN: Through June 18
WHERE: Lupin Theatre at Tulane University