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The Taming of the Shrew — Delaware Shakespeare Festival in Rockwood Park

FULLRes_SHREWSelects_16July2015_byAlessandraNIcole-12-280x300Bucolic Rockwood Park, with its greenery, meadows, and mansion on the hill, provides the perfect setting for a show set in sunny Italy but costumed by Kayla Speedy to suggest late Victorian England which, in turn, seems a good period for Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” You know, with the cry for women’s suffrage and other gender equality issue about to come to the fore.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is hardly the standard bearer for gender equality, even as, in a squinting way, it supports it, but Samantha Bellomo’s bright, light, funny, and touching production for the Delaware Shakespeare Festival wends in that neutral, harmonious direction.

Felicia Leicht’s marvelously played Kate may start out a a termagant, using foul temperament, obstinacy, and few well landed slaps and hair pulls to get unchallenged way and complain about her plight as a father’s “property,” but, as Shakespeare designs, once she gleans Petruchio’s method for an extreme makeover, she understands his motives, and personality, entirely and settles in true matrimonial partnership, in which any subservience will be for show or to teach others how marriage may work to wife and husband’s advantage.

Leicht is a great Kate because you see the intelligence and exasperated sensibility she conveys even as Kate is tormenting her sister, Bianca, berating her father, Baptista Minola, and railing at the venally motivated suitors who she her an as obstruction to wedding their mercenary prize, Bianca.

Leicht is not just angry and violent. She is bad-tempered for a reason. She’s the smartest person in Padua, and every one treats her as if she’s someone who has to be told what to do. Leicht’s Kate cannot stand the daily inanities and insanities she sees before her. Loving though Baptista is, he persists in thinking about Kate as if she should be an obedient, conventional daughter, instead of as an adult woman who, by the way, manages his house, or as a friend, daughter or not, with whom he calmly discusses household and other matters Well-reputed as Bianca is, Shakespeare soon shows her to be a schemer who uses her outward goodness and conventional perfection for show while she plots, with some laudable gumption, to thwart Baptista and marry as she likes and , once wed, settles into the demanding, mate-disparaging role she believes belongs to a wife as a way of the world.

Baptista is kindly but a fool. Bianca is obsequiously sweet but is both a hypocrite and sheep following what she regards as the normal condition of things. Kate is the honest member of the Minola family, so honest she rages at all the folly, foolishness, and falsehood she encounters constantly. Brains and frankness have branded Kate a shrew. This attitude comes out clearly in Bellomo’s entertainingly cunning production and with diamond-like luster in Felicia Leicht’s performance.

The superior intelligence and advanced sensibility of Kate and Petruchio, played with wit and cheeky humor by Charlie DelMarcelle, inform Bellomo’s staging and make the antics and dishonest machinations of other characters all the more pointed and comical. Bellomo is clever enough to leave the farcical passages of “The Taming of the Shrew” intact while exploring and successfully arriving Shakespeare’s conclusion that men and women, and particularly man and wife, do not have to battle if they come to an understanding of mutual respect and partnership.

The “I do not know why women are so simple” speech that causes such furor among feminists in the late part of the 20th century, rings as plain truth when Leicht intones it, and its enlightening preamble in this Delaware Shakespeare Festival production. It reinforces an idea that a husband and wife should be gentle and attentive to one another and that the compact that commits a wife to consider and obey her husband’s biddings is mutual and binds the husband not only to provide and protect but to attend to a wife’s wishes as well.

Bellomo’s fast-paced, well-thought-out comic approach to “Shrew” takes a turn towards seriousness in the end, one that shows the wisdom in Shakespeare’s, and Kate’s, moral and that changes the source of comedy from farce to merry rationality. This is a good show in a beautiful, if sweltering, setting. It gives both outdoor theater and summer Shakespeare and good name. Rockwood Park invites relaxation, and Delaware Shakespeare Festival interns, from high school and college, keep you occupied with recitations of sonnets and pre-show as you wait on your blankets or lawn chairs for “The Taming of the Shrew: to start.

Felicia Leicht’s Kate is the most outstanding among several fine performances given by a uniformly adroit “Shrew” cast.

Leicht is tigerishly fierce in her opening sequences while, again, showing some of the reasons why her Katharina disdains all of humanity around her, sparing only her father, and he slightly, from her outraged wrath.

There’s a scolding nature to Kate’s nastiness. She is not only angry. She is like a fed up teacher who must explain for the umpteenth time the wrongheadedness of other people’s ways. Only in her initial attack on Bianca does she show spite or jealousy. Even then, as Leicht portrays Kate and Tabitha Allen Bianca, one can argue Bianca deserves it for her well-practiced, sycophantic behavior in front of others that is so different from how Kate knows she really is. You feel sorry for Bianca, being attacked, but you side with Leicht’s Kate who has had to put up with Bianca’s act all of her life and is sick of Bianca getting away with it while she, Kate, is called hard, forward, and shrewish.

Leicht also shows a girlish, sentimental side of Kate, subtly and fleetingly but noticeably. It comes when Michael Gamache’s Baptista, is leading Kate to the altar to become Petruchio’s bride. Leicht’s expression shows some apprehension, but of a fearful kind that shows Kate doesn’t know what sort of charade she is cooperating with, along with some smiling wistfulness that suggest a young woman’s romance and pride at the thought of being a bride.

Of course, all of the softer traits dissipate when Petruchio is late, clownishly dressed, and insistent upon leaving fro his home right away, eschewing the reception Baptista and planned for after the ceremony and ignoring Kate’s protests to the point DelMarcelle whisks Leicht off her feet and carries her way through some Rockwood copse.

In early scenes, Leicht and Bellow endow DSF’s “Shrew” with texture, substance that goes beyond Shakespeare’s text and the built-in comedy that would suffice at face value. They make the play more interesting and more focused on Kate than even on Petruchio, let alone Bianca and her pack of wooers.

Mid-play, Leicht is a reasonable Kate, more bewildered and supplicant than volcanic about being kept from food and sleep at the home she’ll share with Petruchio and by the servants she has the right to regard as her own.

Towards the end, you see clearly when Petruchio’s device dawns on Kate, and this denouement is quite satisfying. The crucial scenes at Bianca’s wedding to the real Lucentio, as noted, brings Bellomo’s production to a reasonable conclusion, contenting rather than contentious, and respectful to women of the 21st century.

Because of Leicht’s commanding work, Kate becomes the marvel of Bellomo’s production, but all segments of it play well and do testament to its fine actors, notably Del Marcelle, Gamache, James Kern, Leonard Kelly, and David Stradley.

Rockwood can stand in for Italy, but it also smacks of Americana, and Speedy’s Victorian outfits also have an American context. This “Taming of the Shrew” therefore has a universal character and be as much at home set in Meredith Willson’s River City, Iowa or a country town in England as much as Shakespeare’s Padua.

NealBoxFarcical elements at the top of the play go quite smoothly and entertainingly. Michael Gamache centers matters as respectably noble, if put upon Baptista Minola,

Gamache’s realistically played Baptista is beset on all sides. His younger daughter, Bianca, is upset because Baptista is traditional enough to insists her elder sister, Katharina, marry before she does. It isn’t that Bianca is crazy about the Paduans who seek her hand and dowry. She wants to be mistress of her own house and play the grand lady, away from the socially embarrassing and domineering behavior of her sister and in a position to thwart a husband’s wishes in a way she would never ignore her father’s.

Gamache walks a fine line between losing his patience and composure and imposing order and civility on his perplexing predicament. He maintains the bearing and tone of a capable, competent man while conveying the comic angst and constant tugs with which Baptista must constantly cope.

Tabitha Allen is a nicely duplicitous Bianca who can be all sweetness and light when someone is looking but who can be haughty, teasing, and dismissive when left to her own devices. Allen, Bellomo, and Kevin Hoffman make more of a show of Bianca spurning the pedant, Licio, who is really Hortensio in disguise, than usually occurs, and the obvious collusion between Bianca and Lucentio, disguised as a music teacher, Cambio, also registers more strongly and it does in most productions.

Most important, the scenes in Baptista’s house, between Bianca and her suitors, does not take the tedious, let’s-get-past-this turn they often do. Allen leads the way in these sequences, which help reveal some mettle and deceptive qualities in Bianca.

Exchanged identities and disguises are a major factor in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Petruchio is about the only husband who comes by his bride directly and honestly, even if he chooses Kate, sight unseen, more for Baptista’s money than his own taste. He at least declares he’s come to wive it wealthfully in Padua and that he eschews conventional love in favor of an advantageous business arrangement,

He is straightforward while Lucentio, Hortensio, and Gremio, the suitors to Bianca, all play a trick as they attempt to get leg ahead.

In Bellomo’s production, some of the tricks play strangely. I’m all for non-traditional casting, the assigning of a part without regard to external factors such as gender, race, or physical trait. Sometimes though, diversity in casting can lead to absurdity.

In “The Taming of the Shrew,” Lucentio to gain private access to Bianca, pretends to be a music tutor, Cambio, as a means to get into Baptista’s home and use the time allotted to the lute for flirting. In other words, the lute facilitates the liar. To foment his plot, Lucentio has his servant, Tranio, dress in his garments and pretend to be Lucentio as he takes in the sights of Padua while waiting for his father, Vincentio, tp join him.

This plot is tried and true, and all well and good. But Bellomo casts Ife Foy, a black woman as the Tranio who must pose as Lucentio.

Forget 16th century Paduan class structure which would probably not accept a black member of the nobility to mistake an African for an Italian. The ridiculousness of considering that is why we non-traditional casting.

Forget that Foy is a good actress and makes a witty delight of being the supposed Lucentio. Shakespeare gives the actual Lucentio a line saying he and Tranio has been reported to look so alike, few can tell man from master.

Not if one is black and the other is white. Even non-traditional casting has to be reasonable rather than random. Black and white, and I’m talking about pigment of complexion and not race here, is a visual matter. It’s immediately obvious. Judgment, as in prejudice, should not be triggered by it. Nor should any other sign or instance of bigotry.

But, Foy’s performance aside, how much do you have to suspend disbelief to think an entire town will accept that Tranio is Lucentio when Tranio is clearly black and Lucentio is decidedly white.

The worse thing is casting is not the problem. Disbelief, or imagination, would be acceptable except if Foy was simply substituted for Kevin Hoffman as Lucentio. It’s Shakespeare’s line that is the culprit. It established an expectation, a certainty, that non-traditional casting renders absurd.

By all means cast Hoffman and the disguised Foy as Lucentio, but if you do have the courage and the sense to cut Shakespeare’s line saying they are practically identical. Theater folks, like everyone, like to have their liberty and flout it too. Sometimes the absurdity of a decision needs to be noted.

Foy’s performance is excellent. She knows how to convey Lucentio and avoids cheap business such as a servant preening in his employer’s suit or slipping into lower ways while pretending to his employer’s dignity.

On the contrary, Foy is natural in bearing and expression while playing the surrogate Lucentio. Foy’s performance is lively. She, feigning Lucentio, is more charming and pleasant than Hoffman assaying the actual character.

You get past the silliness of Bellomo’s choice in a second. My reason for bringing it up is not that is mars the play or production but that even as the non-traditional, it’s sloppy. I believe in license, but some matters should have thoughtful restriction applied.

Cut Shakespeare’s unnecessary line about Tranio and Lucentio being able to pass for brothers, and Bellomo is home. The director’s choice becomes even more absurd when Langston Darby, who is black, appears as a stranger in Padua and is enlisted by another of Lucentio’s servants, Biondello, to act as Lucentio’s absent father when Baptista has seen the actual Vincentio.

As Shakespeare also said, all’s well that ends well, and Bellomo’s production does not fall akilter because of her casting. It does, however, take you out of the play for a minute and wonder why better preparation was not made for how Shakespeare’s joke about identity might be realized and construed. Darby also did well as the pretending Vincentio, especially in the sequence when he confronts the actual Vincentio, played by Leonard Kelly, at his front door.

Good work makes up for a faux pas. Again, my caution is less about who is cast than about getting rid of material in the play that calls attention to a tolerable but incongruous directorial choice.

Charlie DelMarcelle is a good-natured Petruchio. He has the swagger and aloofness to come into Padua and tell the folks there he is looking for a rich wife, but his lack of particularity is practical matter. He needs more money to keep his life and estate going as he prefers. Whomever he meets will be good enough because he is both flexible enough to put up with someone wanting and wise enough to mold someone with potential and character into his partner.

Kate fits into the latter category. Petruchio, like Kate, not given to rules of chivalry for their own sake, sees his challenge, knows his strategy, and sets at immediately. Will Kate or nil Kate, she will be Petruchio’s wife, and you can tell Del Marcelle’s Petruchio has a plan to keep at least himself happy. And Kate, too, if she perceives his gambit and meets him at first, in all things, and at things relax, halfway.

Petruchio is not a monster or a tyrant any more than Kate is. Shakespeare, that first and most expert of psychologists imagined and put on stage a couple that are equal to each other in spirit and intelligence. They just have to realize it so they can be a team instead of adversaries.

In DelMarcelle, you can see the wit and design behind Petruchio’s strictness.

Even if you didn’t, Shakespeare has Petruchio say exactly what he is doing to “tame” Kate not only from shrewishness but from thinking all of the world are her tormentors and that there’s no one good and worth treating civilly.

DelMarcelle’s approach keeps Petruchio a hero. He’s likeable. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental about what he’s doing. The stakes are higher because in the scene in which they DelMarcelle’s Petruchio shows plainly he is impressed by Kate and less daunted by her fishwife’s behavior than he is struck by the intelligence of her rejoinders and confident carriage. His “kiss me, Kate” is more than an idle demand or first step. Between Leicht and DelMarcelle, it’s a sign that Petruchio thinks he got a much better end of a blind bargain than he ever expected.

James Kern is an actor I’ve seen only twice but who has impressed me both times. As Malcolm, in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Temple University, he brought vibrance and substance to a character that had one important scene and then fades into the woodwork. Pardon me, castle stone. From his first appearance, Kern’s Malcolm was an important figure on the stage, one who commanded your attention.

He brings the same dash to the often functionary part of Grumio, Petruchio’s primary servant. Kern beings a mischievous but palpable intellect to the character, one that conduces well to a servant of such a smart, tactical taskmaster.

Grumio defers to Petruchio, but he doesn’t mind being saucy, and he is competent in cooperating in any plot Petruchio cooks up to foil Kate or strategically upset the prevailing tea cart.

Leonard Kelly mixes pomp with comic confusion as the deceived Vincentio, who is threatened by his son’s servant with jail and stricken with worry his son may have murdered before all becomes clear.

David Stradley finds the right amount of dullness that would keep you from wanting him for Bianca’s husband while he conveys enough pride and good traits for you to wish him well with anything else. Hortensio reads the situation between Lucentio/Cambio and Bianca well and has the wit to concede and move on to more fertile prey, a widow looking for a husband, than to stay with an obviously scornful and devious Bianca.

Lesley Berkowitz, a woman, blends the least into her gender bending role as Gremio, but she does well portraying age that doesn’t want to admit itself and adds to the production’s comedy.

Kelly also entertains as Christopher Sly, the character for whom “The Taming of the Shrew” is supposedly being enacted. Zachary Davis has a fetching way about him as the woman enlisted to be Sly’s wife as he watches the show.

Dylan Jamison’s brightly colored set with levels and bevels, high platforms, and low platforms give Bellomo a lot of playing spaces on a stage that defies geometric description. “The Taming of the Shrew” is done in the round, and you never feel as if one position on the Rockwood lawn is significantly better than any other. That’s how even-handed Bellomo’s staging is.

Kayla Speedy’s costumes are uniformly — no pun intended — excellent and fitting — also no pun- for the production. Felicia Leicht looks especially good in the cream, diaphanous cocktail dress Kate wears to her wedding.

David Todaro’s lighting kept all visible as the sky darkened above Rockwood. Michael Hahn’s sound design includes a few tunes he composed to leaven the production, all of which were performed entertainingly.

“The Taming of the Shrew,” produced by the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, runs through Sunday, August 2, at Rockwood Park, 4651 Washington Street, in Wilmington, Del. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 6 p.m. Sunday. Gates at Rockwood open at 6:15 (4:45 on Sundays). The theater has little seating. You are expected, and encouraged, to take lawn or beach chairs which you can place around the perimeter of the stage. Blankets are also welcome. Many being picnics and wine to enjoy before, and during, the show. Tickets are $17 with various available discounts and can be obtained by calling 302-415-3373 or by visiting www.delshakes.org.

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