Roller skates, Elvis Presley, leather jackets and malt shops. No, it’s not that other summer event celebrating the 1950s. It’s Shakespeare, obviously.
Merry War Theatre Group returns to the steps of the Lear Theater for another summer of the Bard under the stars, this time with one of his best known and least politically correct comedies, The Taming of the Shrew.
Director, lead actress and company founder Chase McKenna set this story about gender wars squarely in 1950s Santa Cruz—a choice that certainly fits in with the downtown sounds of bicycle bells and motorcycle engines. For this play about men conspiring to dominate and control women for personal gain—one that actually ends with a monologue from a woman about the pleasure of serving your man—it also makes sense to set it during a period of conformity in which women’s discontent with the status quo was only beginning to emerge. In this age of #MeToo, it may be the only way to pull that off.
As to the premise, I’ll keep it simple. Wealthy diner proprietor Baptista (Michael Peters) has two daughters: Katherine, or Kate (McKenna), the abrasive, hardheaded elder, and Bianca (Lili Grajeda), the good-natured, lovely and sweet younger one. All the boys love Bianca, but Kate’s tendency to knee them in the groins and call them names makes her vastly unpopular. Unfortunately, Baptista won’t let anyone marry Bianca until some fellow consents to take Kate off his hands.
Two mischievous suitors of Bianca’s—Gremio (Chadaeos Clarno), a dead ringer for Thurston Howell III, and Hortensio (Owen Bryant), who resembles a slick used-car salesman—cook up a plot to marry Kate off so they can get to Bianca. With promises of Baptista’s money, they’ll lure their fortune-seeking pal Petruchio (Cameron Shirey) into turning on the charm and taming that willful shrew into submission.
Of course, good ol’ Will also built in some requisite, needlessly complex subplots involving switched identities, just to add some length and confusion to the story.
Billed as a family-friendly show, its actors bend over backward to make Shakespeare accessible to the masses, and, for the most part, it works. I brought my husband and 9-year-old daughter and found the show consistently funny and, even for my daughter, understandable—an impressive feat indeed. Shirey and McKenna are especially skilled at physical comedy, voice projection, and the strategic use of gesture and facial expressions to convey meaning, which is crucial not only for Shakespeare but also for any show performed outside without microphones.
Though Shakespeare’s original writing is, for all intents and purposes, retained, the Merry War crew has taken a few liberties, including impromptu singalongs to well-known ’50s tunes.
The costuming and elaborate set design—featuring motel and diner facades that completely nail the time period and feature original art by Killbuck Norman—help to keep the story fresh and fun, even with the weighty, hard-to-follow language.
Despite a few off-key and way-too-quiet performers, this Merry War production is definitely a fun way to spend a midsummer’s night.