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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Untame "Taming"

Vintage Stuffe Dept., Shakespeare Division: Long before I had any professional association with the NYS Theatre Institute, back in the days when it was the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts, I reviewed its productions for Albany's Metroland Magazine. Here's a time-machine visit to a 1985 production of The Taming of the Shrew.


John Abajian (top) and John Romeo
IF THE EMPIRE STATE Institute for the Performing Arts production of The Taming of the Shrew suffers from anything, it’s a surfeit of attention. So keenly has director Terence Lamude striven to overcome any opacity the play has gained over the ages that he has, if anything, given us too much detail. But it’s a spectacular production, the kind that makes Shakespeare as accessible as he deserves to be. There may be a large number of people, kids now, who will look back at a school trip to this play as a door-opener to something a little weightier (and ultimately more fun) than Neil Simon nonsense – never mind trash like The A-Team.

The set, designed by Klaus Helm, has a cartoon-like aspect of much detail and not all filled in. It suits the action, which joyfully discovers the burlesque In the script. Lamude also adds a few manic touches of his own, in the manner of film director Richard Lester. People bash heads; slops get dumped from a window.

In the role of Petruchio, the man determined to tame the termagent Katharine, John Abajian projects not so much fire and brimstone as craftiness: his behavior thus comes from calculatedness, which gives him depth of character. Carolyn Valentis is fittingly aggressive as Kate. That her own fire ultimately is put under control by this man may be judged sexist by contemporary standards but, even as I squirmed in my seat myself, I tried to keep in mind that an artist must be taken in the context of his times.

There are some rip-roaring fights between the two, and Valentis’s diminutive size in no way hampers her; by the end she has evoked your sympathy, and that’s to the actress’s credit.

John Romeo plays Petruchio’s comic servant, Grumio, very broadly. It’s a nice contrast to his master, and he reminded me of vintage film comedian Walter Connolly when he contorted his features and cracked his voice. There were some wonderfully rich voices to be heard too, particularly those of Thomas Lee Carson as Gremlo, elderly suitor of Bianca, and Albert Corbin as Baptista. ESIPA regulars Gary Aldrich and Helena Binder played the team of Tranio and Biondella with great verve: they were put to better use than I’ve seen in a long time.

The cast is very large and can’t be detailed one by one: each had something characteristically quirky to offer.

Presented in two "acts," as it were, the production seemed to middle better than it began or ended each time: a prologue was added, in Italian, which failed to set the mood as well as the play itself; anyone who’s sat through subtitled Fellini has a feel for Italian rhythms, which were absent in the carefully pronounced dialogue.

A dance that ended each half also had the feeling of being tacked on, and added nothing except that many more minutes of playing time. And, when everybody sat down at the conclusion to make puns and play out the moral, such as there is, the momentum also sat down. Is there a more energetic way to play this cene? All in all, however, it was a play I hated to see end. Shakespeare’s work can have a bad rep of being inaccessible, but this production was easy to understand, fast moving, and funny.

Metroland Magazine, Feb. 14, 1985

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