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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Taming of the Shrew — Lantern Theater

16258629973_20cfe6e346_zPadua and environs are lighthearted places in Charles McMahon’s lively, intelligent production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” for Lantern Theater.

McMahon, set designer Lance Kniskern, and costumer Mark Mariani have kept all colorful and sunlit as both Christopher Sly, in a rare use of Shakespeare’s induction, Baptista Minola, and all the denizens of Padua loll in bright doorways, laze on verandas, and enjoy the openness of the Padua square.

J Hernandez is a wonderful Petruchio, retaining the smoky intensity he showed as the lover in “Blood Wedding” and combining with discerning comic simplicity that sets you on Petruchio’s side whether he’s bargaining, wooing, or chastising. For a slight man, Hernandez always projects a dashing, romantic figure. In “Shrew,” he’s calculating and in command. He is witty in his petulance, cunning in his stratagems, and sweetly content when his objectives are felicitously fulfilled. As Sly or Petruchio, Hernandez adds another ray of light to Shon Causer’s summery palette, and his performance gives McMahon’s production weight to go along with its jocular spirit.

McMahon eases Petruchio’s campaign to tame his fiery bride, Katherine, by having Grumio, Petruchio’s valet, and the servants in Petruchio’s house privy to the their employer’s plan to check Katherine at every turn. Instead of the servants being bumpkins who deserve the whipping that is a staple ploy in many Shakespearean productions, they know of Petruchio’s technique for subduing Katherine and are primed to play along with him. I like this approach. It eliminates the silliness in the master-servant relationship and makes sense for someone as foxy as Petruchio to have arranged for complicity instead of setting his entire household aflutter.

K.O. DelMarcelle gives the Lantern audience an alternative take on Bianca. Instead of being the dutiful, submissive daughter, she just has a calmer, quieter way of manipulating than Katherine. DelMarcelle’s Bianca observes the landscape and is anything she has to be to get her own way. Rather than rail, complain, and have tantrums like Katherine, this Bianca connives. She knows how to twist her father and her suitors around her finger and takes no compunction is doing just that.

McMahon’s “Shrew” has a lot of slapstick and merriment to keep it fun while employing the differences mentioned, and Hernandez’s performance, to keep it interesting.

Fun is the more important element. Theater, above all, should be entertaining, and by choosing to keep all moving quickly and to give characters leeway to be broad, the Lantern “Shrew” amuses while never straying past boundaries into the “too much” and always staying true to the tone and intent of Shakespeare’s play, one that asks for big performances and benefits from them.

Hernandez is the one who keeps his performance the most basic even as he shows a wealth of range and creates his usual strong presence. He is a crafty, sharp-witted Petruchio who goes about his task to curb Katherine’s anger and contrariness in a well-plotted, businesslike way.

For one thing, Hernandez cues that Petruchio recognizes the cause for Katherine’s temper. Many around her, especially the suitors to Bianca are foolish and merit disdain. Others taunt Katherine into being foul and assaultive with their insults and gibes about her temper. From the opposite angle, Baptista has never known how to placate or calm his surly daughter, so her rages dominate his household and became the talk of Padua.

Hernandez’s Petruchio is perceptive enough to glean all of this. As a stranger to Padua, a man who came there to find a wife from a wealthy family, he can see past the calamities Katherine causes into the dynamics that foment them. Be called “forward” and “cursed” and “shrewish” long enough, and you’ll live up to it.

Petruchio also sees something in the spirit of Kate, something that attracts him as much as Baptista’s money. She is not like other women. She is smarter, more independent, and less conventional. She runs her home and wants the respect due a person of her station, woman or not. Kate may know the fashion, as she expresses when the hatmaker displays his designs at Petruchio’s, but it is not her only thought, as it might be to Bianca or to the widow one of Bianca’s suitors, Hortensio, marries after Bianca chooses Lucentio to be her husband. Kate is, underneath the armor she wears to manage Baptista’s house and ward off men who’d rather woo or torment than converse, a woman of competence and sense who appreciates the finer things but doesn’t have the time or inclination to dote on them.

Katherine is different among women in many of the same ways Petruchio is when compared to men. Petruchio may have accepted Katherine, sight unseen, to acquire her dowry, but in Hernandez’s take, his eye says he is impressed with the woman he finds.

By having Petruchio appreciate Katherine on some level, the taming is done in a constructive context, one I think Shakespeare had in mind even if Elizabethan women were “goods” and “chattel” who in actuality ruled the roost in the way Bianca and the widow show an intention to do.

NealBoxPetruchio doesn’t tame Kate to get a submissive wife. That might be his aim if she was just a spoiled termagant or a subtle shrew like Bianca. Then he would have to endure her tongue to get Baptista’s money. Petruchio tames Kate to have a partner, someone who is mature, independent, and unconventional enough to enjoy life on the grand terms he does, someone who won’t be a fool or smack of common mediocrity.

In McMahon’s production, Petruchio works with a more obvious and indicated purpose in grooming Katherine to be a wife and companion rather than a romantic choice he made while infatuated and now has to contend with.

Romance comes later in Petruchio and Kate’s story. Business comes first, and Petruchio sets about it.

Not realizing all that is behind Petruchio’s withholdings and denials, Joanna Liao’s Kate is as fierce as ever. Yet you feel a tad sorry for her, because Hernandez’s Petruchio is so unyieldingly steadfast.

The process McMahon depicts, and Hernandez acts with witty aplomb, becomes dramatic. We see the results unfolding. This isn’t a “Taming of the Shrew” that goes through the motions of Kate being starved, rebuffed, and even flattered into shape. It’s one that lets you see and appreciate Petruchio’s design and technique and does it so entertainingly, you revel in the amusing means Petruchio employs to bring Katherine to human, reasonable scale.

Meanwhile, in Padua, the competition for Bianca’s hand is in full swing. Here McMahon cuts corners a little. Lucentio’s access to Bianca when disguised as her tutor, Cambio, gives him ample chance to employ courtly romance and win the willing Bianca while Hortensio, posing as another instructor, Licio, makes no headway, and Gremio, an elderly suitor simpers in frustration. Ahren Potratz’s Lucentio/Cambio is also the youngest, handsomest, wiliest, and most flirtatious of the suitors, so the character gains extra advantage from those assets.

McMahon allows Potratz and DelMarcelle time to kindle their characters’ budding affair and communicate its sincerity while giving scenes with Hortensio/Licio and Gremio just enough latitude to establish conflict and add another source of comedy. DelMarcelle’s Bianca never becomes the sweet, naïve damsel the character is often portrayed as. She’s a grown woman who knows her way around men is skilled in the art of accepting and resisting flirtation. She knows full well who captured her heart and why she prefers him over others.

Petruchio’s respect for Katherine as he tames her, and Bianca’s cleverness as a woman with options, neatly set up the wedding scene in which Katherine delivers her speech that has become controversial in the 40 years since women’s liberation took hold, “I am ashamed that women are so simple, to offer war when they should kneel for peace.”

In the Lantern production, we are hearing from a Kate who has learned to appreciate her husband as a friend and partner as opposed to a romantic or socially necessary fixture in her life. She is not being submissive as much as reasonable. Her obedience to Petruchio is motivated by respectful regard and no longer by fear or the belief that he thinks of her as his goods or chattel. It is a triumphant moment well played by Liao and set up masterfully by the actress, Hernandez, and McMahon.

Though Hernandez’s Petruchio may be serious about his task, McMahon’s “Shrew” finds lots of opportunities to be light and broadly comic. Because this story of Petruchio and Katherine is being played out as a play dreamt by and participated in by Christopher Sly, McMahon has given nimself license to allow a lot of happen, and in small but entertaining takes, you have the incompetence of both Petruchio’s and Lucentio’s servants, various characters in drag, and some commedia dell’arte hijinks to laugh at. The marriage of comic atmosphere and tasks being accomplished diligently is a satisfying hallmark of McMahon’s production.

Joanna Liao is quick to show that Kate can be reasonable. Petruchio is training Kate to be agreeable and to discuss differences rather than insisting on her way or thwarting him out of a sense of superiority or contrariness. Liao’s Kate doesn’t grasp that at first, but as she pleads to Petruchio’s servants to feed her or negotiates sensibly with a dressmaker or milliner, you can see Kate as a woman of taste, decorum, and even refinement. All she needs to know to show those traits to Petruchio, instead of thinking a person should have one voice for society and another for the people they live with, and she will find a peaceful life in which her thoughts and opinions will be heard and regarded.

Liao lets us see the Kate who is capable of this level of cooperation and compromise. The actress is especially effective after this revelation of Kate’s, expressed in the “ashamed” speech, takes hold.

David Bardeen is all puffed-up complacency as Gremio, who thinks his wealth, equal and possibly beyond Baptista’s, will counterbalance his age and stodginess as he bids for Bianca’

“Bids” is the operative word, as all Gremio has to offer is money. Something Bianca will not need. Bardeen shows Gremio’s nature when he agrees to plant Cambio is Baptista’s house as Bianca’s tutor who he thinks is wooing for him, not realizing Cambio is Lucentio who will be working on his own behalf.

Matt Tallman conveys the pomposity of Hortensio, a man of pride who thinks his social stature and money should be enough to secure Bianca. Tallman shows great frustration when, as Licio, he is always bested and sent packing by Cambio.

Nathan Foley continues his skein of fine performances as a congenial but put-upon Baptista. Ahren Potratz is nicely aggressive as Lucentio/Cambio, showing the character to be truly interested in kissing Bianca and securing her for his bedmate. Potratz is also nicely flustered as the rebuffed Lucentio in scene in which Lucentio and Hortensio bet their wives will be more obedient than Petruchio’s.

As the servants, DelMarcelle, doubling parts, is a mischievous Biondello while Bradley K. Wrenn is a courtly Tranio who can easily pass for the noble he plays while acting as Lucentio when that young man is busy as Cambio. Wrenn also does well as Hortensio’s haughty widow. Dave Johnson has fun as Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, who has great license to play tricks on his own. Johnson is particularly funny when he shows the enjoyment Grumio gets from pranks and jokes that he alone appreciates.

Lance Kniskern’s set, with its many doors, balconies, and piazzas, accommodates the traffic of “The Taming of the Shrew” well. Mark Mariani’s costumes, some of which have to be donned and undonned in seconds, strike the right note. Shon Causer’s lighting shines the Italian sun on Padua and the countryside where Petruchio dwells.

“The Taming of the Shrew” runs through Sunday, May 3, at the Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Saturday, April 11. No evening performances are set for Wednesday, April 29 or Thursday, April 30. Tickets range from $39 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting www.lanterntheater.org.

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