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The Taming of the Shrew                  American Players Theatre, 2011

Katie Reiser The Isthmus

American Players Theatre opened its 25th anniversary season with a production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew on Saturday. The pace was brisk, as was the temperature in the woods of Spring Green.

In Padua, Italy, a father faces the challenge of keeping a plethora of suitors for his docile and attractive daughter at bay, while coping with volatile outbursts from his older daughter, Kate, deemed by all around her to be a she-devil. He decides to sequester his youngest away, giving only tutors access to her, until his oldest is married off. In a hallmark of the Bard, much masquerading and trickery ensues.

This comedy certainly has its detractors, who point to the premise of a man essentially breaking his wife's spirit in order to shape her into an obedient spouse. But in the capable hands of director Tim Ocel, we're able to see the relationship evolve in a way that somehow makes sense. While I'll admit to wincing at words like "obey" and "serve" in Kate's famous speech about marriage near the end of Act II, I also found her connection to her husband to be genuine, helping me reconcile the patronizing and sexist implications.

Tracy Michelle Arnold, whose innate sexiness is initially camouflaged by severe costuming and a dour expression, is the infamous shrew Kate. Some may be disheartened by her character's transformation from volatile spitfire, first seen wielding a parasol as a weapon and then hog-tying her "pretty pet" younger sister Bianca (the crush-inspiring Ashleigh LaThrop), to dutiful wife. But I thought Arnold's thoughtful performance seemed more like an examination of how love can shape and bend you without breaking you.

At first Kate is barely able to contain her seething anger and contempt. When she is introduced to the potential suitor Petruchio (played with abandon and charm by James Ridge), the two literally circle each other while the barbs fly, and their chemistry is palpable. When she's married off to him, she observes his taming antics with a mixture of incredulity and alarm. By the end we see Arnold soften, but she's kept her keen intelligence intact, and perhaps she's played her husband just as much in this game.

When he first arrives in Act I, Ridge lets us know what a mellow dude he really is, so it's all the more startling to see how much he relishes tormenting Kate in order to transform her. But we witness his underlying humanity when he frantically scribbles a message to his new bride on a chalkboard in his home.

We're treated to Matt Schwader flexing his comic chops with obvious delight in the role of the cunning servant Tranio masquerading as his master Lucentio. I've seen Schwader play the hero and the handsome cad before, but never the prankster, and it suited him surprisingly well.

Lucentio's other servant, Biondello, played by Charlie Wright, delivers a demanding, tongue-twisting speech announcing the tardy arrival of Petruchio to the wedding that had the audience at the edge of their seats in appreciation. When Petruchio and his servant Grumio (David Daniel, who's genuinely funny, especially when recounting the tale of the newlywed's travels) finally arrive at the wedding they are dressed like two Swiss Guards from the Vatican who have gone rogue to follow the Grateful Dead on tour. It's a visual clue to the craziness Petruchio feigns in order to disarm his new wife. Costume designer B. Modern hits many high notes throughout the evening, but these were particularly triumphant.

Ocel thankfully eschews the play's framing device, which sets up the story as a play within the play, and jumps right into the action. He then keeps that action taut, and even a scene change late in Act II becomes an opportunity to amuse the audience.

If you've avoided The Taming of the Shrew because of your discomfort with the idea of a strong-willed woman needing to be tamed, APT's production might win you over.

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