Shrew: puppets, cross-dressing, slapstick and Shakespeare
by Drew Rowsome
Photos by John Gundy
In a tacky bar somewhere in Northern Canada a crew of devious puppets convince a drunken puppet that he is a nobleman. Before he has a chance to sober up he, and the audience packing the Storefront Theatre, are plunged into a comic romp re-imagining of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Having the title shortened to Shrew and slapstick layered on does not mean that this is not proper Shakespeare, it just means that is very entertaining. The original text is mostly intact and the talented cast and crew have a great time exercising their classical theatre muscles while riffing and kibitzing in modern times. The framing device allows for the "amateur" theatre troupe to overact, ad lib and break the fourth wall but the final result is an admiration for how well they handle the poetry and how faithful this Shrew is to the original text.
The addition of musical numbers, honky tonk saloon numbers at that, is great fun but too sparingly used. The addition of cross-dressing and gender confusion gains the majority of the laughs with Kelly Penner as the divine Bianca, swanning and quipping his/her way throughout. Intriguingly this unbalances Shrew in a delightful way by making the sub-plot the main plot. It also draws all the other characters into question - the strutting Petruchio (Benjamin Blais who somehow makes an offensive character sexually appealing, it is the butt-baring chaps that put his macho charisma over the top) seems to have an alternate relationship with his manservant Gremio (the blustering and scene-stealing Brenhan McKibben) - and almost solves the central problem of The Taming of the Shrew.
Karen Knox is a fiery Kate and when she first capitulates to Petruchio's demands, she plays it with an irony and winks that lets the audience know she is no fool and is playing Petruchio to her own ends. But there is no way to fix the ending where Kate is starved, bullied and forced into submission. The palpable sexual heat between Knox and Blais makes it understandable, but it still rankles. Of course by then the audience is weak with laughter and it can all be chalked up to the horrors of a historical document that pre-dates feminism and Dan Savage. By the time the widow who marries Hortensio is revealed to have a full beard, the audience is in uncharted sexual territory and societal norms are reduced to comic mistakes.
Sight gags get the laughs deserved - Petruchio's manservants clad in bright red longjohns is a sexy, very Canadian costume choice - and in a play where more than half the characters are masquerading as someone else, the doubling or tripling of roles makes perfect sense. Jeff Hanson's big inviting smile as a tech morphs into a stolid but astoundingly limber Vincentio. The heartsick Lucentio - Daniel Briere's flirtations with the minxy Pernner are priceless - is also the master puppeteer: another metaphor tied up neatly.
The Storefront Theatre is a small space and the audience winds up being in the centre of the action, as if we were sitting in an actual bar. The cast enters and exits amongst us and the energy is contagious. They faithfully create a "Let's put on a show" atmosphere while never letting the audience notice how slick the choreography, direction, diction and acting is. The cast is having a great time and the audience an even better one.
Shrew runs until Sun, March 2 at the Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St W. redonetheatre.com