September 22, 2003
Turning Shakespare Into a Wandering Tour Through the Orpheum
by Rob Kendt
We're used to getting our classics served cold--cured, preserved, spiced and occasionally garnished with modern dressing. There can be sweet relish in the culinary approach, in which smart theatrical minds work hard to make Shakespeare or Moliere or the Greeks as clear and accessible as possible to contemporary audiences, sometimes by nipping and tucking speeches, sending up or ironizing original intent, or simply mugging through comic-seeming scenes that might as well be gibberish to us. Most great old plays that have survived till now can also survive this treatment, since they are, among other things, durably crowd-pleasing entertainments.
But what if a classic were stripped bare, revealed to us as strange, threatening, unpredictable, like a caveman released from a block of ice? What if "accessibility" meant accessing a play's forbidding distance from us rather than trying to cuddle up close to its universal generalities? What if we watched a classic, in other words, to see something new about the human condition rather than to be comfortably reassured of what we already know?
These are the lofty ambitions of Zoo District's exhilarating, never dull new production of Shakespeare's thorniest valentine, The Taming of the Shrew. Marshalling a company of 23 and an audience of around 80 through four separate playing spaces in the resplendently renovated Orpheum Theater, director Alec Wild pulls off these and more ambitions beautifully, giving us a Shrew that's funny in places Shrew often isn't, disturbing in sections that are often played for laughs, and searching and mysterious in crucial scenes no one knows quite what to do with.
The environmental staging alone makes this a worthwhile effort in itself, a bona fide L.A. theatre happening, as audacious as Collage Dance Theatre's haunting if disjointed Sleeping With the Ambassador earlier this year. For that credit must be laid at the feet of executive producers Steve and Cathy Needleman, who own the Orpheum, and Tamar Fortgang, the driving force behind this Shrew and the production's darkly fiery Kate.
We get much more than a virtual theater tour here, but the use of the spaces alone is shrewd and diverting. Wild employs the multi-level lobby for an almost cartoonishly horizontal street-scene feel and for a few snappy balcony scenes; in the low-ceilinged basement he stages some literally smashing in-the-round lazzi. The final two scenes in the theater proper zip by in a straightforward commedia style that faintly recalls the Orpheum's vaudeville roots before finally calming to its deeply serious, sincerely joyful denouement.
Throughout we barely notice Bosco Flanagan's resourceful lighting set-ups or Laura Mroczkowski's subtle scenic touches. The acoustics are unforgiving and disparate in some spaces but we don't miss a word.
And thank goodness, too. Wild has a nearly perfect cast, well used. Memorably outsized comic types live up to their immediately apparent casting: Casey E. Lewis' beanpole Tranio, Conor Duffy's tightly wound Biondello, Chet Grissom's side-winding Grumio, but above all Michael Franco's bibulous Sly, Bruno Oliver's primping Hortensio, and Tony Forkush's broad, bent Gremio. Nick Roberts makes a dryly sensible and understanding patriarch Baptista, and as the secondary romantic couple, Lucentio and Bianca, Matthew Siegan and Sarah Sido share the infectious, knowing innocence of young people with sex on the brain.
But the show's central success rests on the broad, square shoulders of Ed Cunningham and on the unbowed head of Fortgang. I've never seen a Shrew coupling quite like this: Cunningham's Petruchio is a clever and likeable enough rogue, but he's clearly at least as much trouble as Kate; we're genuinely not sure at times if his mad fits are put ons or if he simply has a rock star-sized ego and appetite for destruction. Fortgang's Kate faces her taming with a kind of comic slow burn that smolders from startled disbelief to the submissive devotion of the play's controversial final scene.
It's here that Wild and company make the play feel, in its own intimate way, as foreign and formidable as Oedipus Rex. Fortgang locates Kate's submission in her strong will without irony or judgment; far from a meekly conformist statement of marital duty, her speech to the assembled wedding party feels deeply radical, contrarian. They sit in shock, as we do, that these two have found inarguable happiness. We wonder for a moment what they know that we don't.
And so for a strange, magical, timeless moment in Downtown L.A. in 2003, we look out into the past--literally, into the Orpheum's palatial expanse, and also into Shakespeare's capacious Renaissance genius. The view from afar has seldom been clearer or more breathtaking.