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The Taming of the Shrew                  American Players Theatre, 2011

Mike Fischer Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

How does a single instrument learn to harmonize with others while preserving its own unique sound?

With a lyrical and layered call and response, that’s the question composer Joe Cerqua asks in his beautiful musical introduction to American Players Theatre’s just-opened production of The Taming of the Shrew.

It’s also the question confronting the heroines of most of Shakespeare’s comedies, and nowhere is the answer more potentially troubling than in Shrew, which concludes with a transformed Kate kneeling before Petruchio while insisting that women must "serve, love and obey."

Contemporary directors of Shrew usually work their way around this problem by manufacturing love at first sight from the fractious couple’s initial encounter. With romance in the air, Kate’s final speech goes down easy.

But as he proved last summer in directing APT’s stellar As You Like It, Tim Ocel is not your usual director, and he once more cuts against the grain in directing Shrew.

Start with the leads. Tracy Michelle Arnold and James Ridge are older than the actors normally playing Kate and Petruchio, which darkens the texture of their tantrums, transforming what’s often played as a romp into something teetering toward madness.

Given the superficial and stultifying world surrounding them, one can understand why Kate and Petruchio are losing their minds.

B. Modern’s Victorian-era costumes and scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s set match a world in which facade and appearance are repeatedly mistaken for the real deal. As a result, skin-deep characters hoodwink each other with flimsy disguises and rhetorical flourishes.

That makes for a fun-filled subplot, led by Matt Schwader as Tranio, one of two servants in this production - David Daniel as Grumio is the other - giving show-stealing comedic performances.

But all that forced gaiety does little for Kate, growing old and bitter in a world from which she has learned to ask nothing, thereby avoiding the disappointment that comes with wanting so much.

From her worn and wary face to her puritanically simple gray dress, Arnold embodies a Kate too afraid to trust. But her eyes continually give her away, revealing the inner hunger of a woman starving for a love she won’t admit she needs.

It is Petruchio who, appropriately dressed here like Garibaldi rather than a Victorian fop, liberates Kate and simultaneously frees himself, having seen in the shrew he first meets what he too has become.

With tender eyes and an increasingly gentle demeanor, Ridge consistently conveys respect for a woman who does some taming here of her own, ensuring that she leaves the stage at play’s end as a partner rather than a prize.

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