By Quinn Rigg
Summer is a lively season for ice cream, beach trips, concerts, dismantling the patriarchy, dog walks, bird watching and the venerated tradition of Shakespeare in the park.
First Folio Theatre intends to offer all a professional and creative approach to such summertime merriment, bringing Shrew’d to the lush natural landscape of Oak Brook’s Mayslake Peabody Estate. Adapted by First Folio’s Executive Director David Rice and Lydia Hiller, with original music by Christopher Kriz, this musical adaptation sets Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in a 1930s Chicago nightclub. Ambitiously, Rice and Hiller take on the hefty task of updating the possessive and sexist themes of the original. While there are drastic changes in regard to the romantic focus of the play, the secondary action remains generally untouched, and a synopsis of the source material may be found here.
First Folio’s production showcases meticulously detailed direction from Johanna McKenzie Miller and powerful (even acrobatic) choreography from Ericka Mac. Miller and Mac deftly fill the stage with vibrant movement and athletic physical humor. In particular, the romantic subplot between Lucentio (played with youthful bombasity by Tony Carter) and Bianca (portrayed gracefully by Emma Rosenthal) is incredibly engaging and entertaining, filled with smartly staged gags, lightning-quick banter, and dynamic dancing.
However, this adaptation does not fair nearly as well in addressing the romantic focus of the play. Given that the strengths of this production lie specifically in light-hearted comedy, Rice’s and Hiller’s decision to shift the relationship between Petruchio (played in this production by Christopher W. Jones) and Katherine (played by Sierra Schnack) toward a serious “meeting of minds” presents jarring tonal dissonance in the work as a whole. Lucentio and Bianca play in the space of a riotously witty farce, while Petruchio and Katherine sing cloying want songs to the audience in the dramatic space of a soap opera.
While the rewriting of this relationship is a well-intentioned deviation from the insanely problematic foundation of Shakespeare’s original, the musical’s namesake plays second-fiddle to the dramatically-focused and wildly entertaining subplot. This imbalance is in part a result of straying from the source material: Bianca’s romance relies mostly on the well-developed narrative of the original text, whereas Katherine’s romance (especially in act two) develops almost completely through original songs.
Overall, Shrew’d suffers from this dissonance between the narrative focus of the book adaptive hiccups of the score. In particular, the contemporary dialect of the lyrics is in complete disagreement with the poetic meter of the Shakespeare’s archaic Elizabethan dialect. While the original text is focused through clear syntactical rules, creating refined wordplay, internal rhyme schemes and rhythmic flow, the lyrics are filled with obvious rhyme schemes devoid of subtext or rhetorical nuance. At times, the lyricism jams multisyllabic words into monosyllabic phrases, or even ignores comprehensible syntax for the sake of another forced rhyme.
Given such severe contrast between book and score, it feels at times as though two plays are happening on top of one another. The two media speak in entirely different languages, separated by the barriers of time, of literary execution, narrative focus and rhetorical function.
Moreover, though the songs attempt to give new context to Shakespeare’s play, many of them feel like dictations to the audience as to how they are supposed to feel and when, as every character sings with exhausting emotional transparency—transparency that is not indicated or motivated by the text. As such, many numbers appear out of thin air, completely unwarranted by the book’s action. Instead of providing new dramatic color to Taming of the Shrew, the score often forces the adaptor’s black-and-white interpretation of a text that is far more ambiguous.
To the score’s credit, numbers like “Partners” serve as hilarious vehicles for Mac’s body-bending, toe-tapping slapstick choreography, showcasing many physical feats of merriment between Carter as Lucentio and his right-hand man, Tranio, portrayed with excitable energy by Sasha Kostyrko. In truth, the songs are only coherent with the book through the context of dance and physical comedy—of which there is none in any regard to Katherine and Petruchio. The naivish antics that endear the rest of the cast are lost on the musical’s supposed protagonists, and ergo, Katherine and Petruchio appear entirely out of place throughout the show.
Though this production does succeed at modernizing Petruchio’s and Katherine’s romance to a more socially acceptable standard, Shrew’d fails to include its namesake in the boisterous hullabaloo that so effectively engages and entertains.
Regardless, this adaptation is enriched through the cunning craftsmanship of its peerless production team. Scenic design by Angela Weber Miller lavishly adorns the two-story set with detail and practicality, aptly recreating the ambience of a Chicago nightclub while awarding the cast ample freedom in the large space. The players themselves are adorned with remarkably stylish period costumes by Emily Arnold. Kevin Reeks conducts his minimalist band with driven precision and energy, and props designer Sophia Briones fills out the space with appropriately-antiquated glasses, bottles, and platters.
Standout performances come from George Keating as the straight-man club owner Baptista, providing a stolid foil to the zany antics that take place in his establishment, and Steven Strafford as the milquetoast suitor Hortensio. Strafford captivates with clever timing and a pathetic exterior that enriches the energy of the action. Additional praises to be sung of the deft feats of dancing that Carter and Rosenthal perform with effortless grace and poise.
Well-supported through passionate performances, precise design and clever direction, Shrew’d still struggles under the weight of its own misguided (though well-meant) narrative edits, and could stand to overhaul its lyrical misgivings, as well as refine its thematic focus. Regardless of narrative dissonance, this production still provides an opportunity to share some laughs (and perhaps a glass of wine) with friends and family under the warmth of the summer stars.
First Folio Theatre present “Shrew’d” through August 19 at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 31st Street, Oak Brook. More information and tickets may be found here.