REVIEW: Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ feels light on its feet

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Janice L Blixt, Robert Kauzlaric, and Alan Ball in Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

When a comic Shakespeare production includes a tip of the Elizabethan muffin hat to the Three Stooges (playful poking and slapfighting), Monty Python (an underling standing in for a horse, complete with clicking coconut halves), and Marx Brothers-style vaudeville (sight gags like a bucket being kicked when death is mentioned, and a huge stack of books being rendered light by the removal of the smallest volume), you know the director’s main goal is to turn up the laughs.

Such is the case with John Neville-Andrews’ Michigan Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” now playing at Canton’s Village Theater. The choice may well be strategic, since the bard’s classic war between the sexes often gives modern audiences – particularly those of the feminist persuasion – a panoply of reasons to cringe.

“Shrew” tells the story of aggressive, sharp-tongued Kate (Janice L Blixt), who drives men away at about the same rate that her younger, more demure sister Bianca (Janet Haley) attracts them. Their father, wealthy merchant Baptista (Tobin Hissong), strategically decides that he won’t allow Bianca to marry until Kate is wed.

Enter Petruchio (David Blixt) from Verona, who’s come to Padua seeking a wealthy wife. When his friend Hortensio (Robert Kauzlaric) – one of Bianca’s many suitors – suggests Kate as a match, Petruchio’s game for the challenge. Following a bizarre courtship and wedding, Petruchio sets out to “tame” his unapologetically fierce, outspoken spouse, denying her food, clothing, and sleep until the couple makes their way back to Padua for Bianca’s wedding. Once there, Petruchio makes a friendly wager with two other men about whose wife will come most quickly when bid, and Kate wins it for him, and then delivers a monologue about being an obedient wife.

So …. you can see why many women aren’t so keen on “Shrew.” And in truth, all the text-pruning and intriguing acting choices in the world can’t, in the end, completely perfume over the play’s underlying stench of misogyny.

Yet Neville-Andrews and the MSF team have nonetheless built a streamlined, often fun, laugh-filled production that aims to suggest that despite the seemingly lopsided balance of power in Kate and Petruchio’s marriage, they may, as secretly self-acknowledged equals, be putting on a bit of a show themselves.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that there’s yet another story driving this production. Lead actors Janice and David Blixt, now married, first met while playing Kate and Petruchio in “Shrew” when MSF staged it 20 years ago, early in the company’s life. That original production was also directed by Neville-Andrews, so this new “Shrew” functions as a kind of artistic reunion.

But perhaps more than that, Kate and Petruchio, when played by actors now in middle-age instead of young adulthood, suddenly feel like more sophisticated, savvier beings. With Neville-Andrews at the helm, the Blixts’ first on-stage meeting features a dual moment of recognition among perfectly-suited peers; they essentially “break character” briefly, pleased by, and attracted to, their new partner, before immediately resuming their premeditated roles as antagonists. In addition, the sisters’ maturity – ironic, since they childishly bait each other in an early scene – suggests that the “problem” of marrying off Kate has likely been impeding the Minola family’s progress for many years, making the stakes all the higher. And finally, because the older we get, the more firmly set in our ways we become, Kate’s whiplash-inducing “transformation,” as depicted by Jan Blixt, appears far more suspicious than it otherwise might when conveyed by an ingenue.

Kate, of course, is always a meaty, challenging role for a contemporary actress to sink her teeth into – and indeed, Jan Blixt appears to sink her teeth into her costar at one point. Her seemingly performative transition from hellcat to “good wife” demands and rewards close attention; and although the change still inevitably feels somewhat jarring – how could it not? – Blixt brings a winking awareness to a woman trapped inside a sexist system. David Blixt, meanwhile, must thread the needle of making Petruchio smitten and shrewdly calculating more than malevolent – no small feat when you’re denying your partner’s basic human needs. But no small number of this production’s gags involve Petruchio, thus painting him as a rapscallion who sometimes takes things too far.

Like most MSF productions, the cast is sound and skilled, from top to bottom. Kauzlaric wrings humor from surprising textual places as Hortensio; Brandon St. Clair Saunders, playing Tranio, makes his mark as a servant who revels in playing his swaggering master Lucentio; and Shawn Pfautsch, as Petruchio’s servant Grumio, miraculously almost makes the production’s self-consciously goofier moments feel native to the show’s Elizabethan world.

Which brings me to one sticking point: Neville-Andrews’ prime objective, as mentioned earlier, seems to be laughter; but there’s a line between ramping up a show’s humor and trying too hard. The aforementioned bucket gag is kind of cute once, but grows tired when it’s used twice; Pfautsch as a character that’s suddenly part horse, part servant – in a show that’s otherwise not concerned with magical realism – just feels weird; and a turbo-talking speech delivered by Eric Eilersen, playing just-trying-to-keep-up servant Biondello, is a marvel to behold, but comes off more as a distracting parlor trick than an outgrowth of character.

The show’s backdrop, designed by Jeromy Hopgood, consists of suspended Tudor housefronts, and set pieces that can be moved quickly on- and off-stage; Suzanne Young’s costume design underscores not only the period, but the colorfully comic tone (Petruchio’s demented wedding ensemble is one I’ll not soon forget); David Blixt did double duty as fight choreographer (not sparing himself, by any means, from Kate’s abuse, thereby beefing up her physicality); Sera Sharer’s prop design often aligned with Neville-Andrews’ emphasis on money’s role in the show; and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting generally keeps things light and bright, even when the text goes to dark places.

Overall, the crisp, snappy pacing of MSF’s “Shrew” makes it feel light on its feet, and thus surprisingly approachable. That’s not to say your qualms will disappear, or that the text’s gendered power dynamics won’t make you squirm. They likely still will. But at the very least, when a production like this makes it easier to take in the story, we can finally hold it up to the light and have a real discussion about the problems reflected in it, instead of merely assuming our expected places on opposite sides of the ideological boxing ring.

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