SF Shakes “Tames” Audience with Funny and Touching ‘Shrew’

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s Taming of the Shrew Delights in Summer Show

This may contain spoilers.

Taming SF Prog    PLEASANTON, CA – It’s Summer, and that means it’s time for free summer Shakespeare from the good folks at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. This year’s play is the sometimes controversial comedy Taming of the Shrew. Directed by Rebecca J. Ennals with actors Tim Kniffin and Carla Pantoja in the lead roles of Petruccio and Kate, Taming is a well balanced comedy of real people.

The play and its director is up front with the common problem with Shrew right in the Director’s Note. “The fact is, this is a sexist play” says director Ennals. It’s true, it is a sexist play and this show succeeds in being just upfront with that. But it does so much more. The comedy and the characters truly create a wonderful moving portrait of love and relationships that leaves you laughing in a night well spent at free theatre in the park.

The stage right before the show starts

The stage right before the show starts

When you arrive to see this show from SF Shakes, you arrive early and scout out a spot to place your blanket or lawn chair and pull out your snacks as you read through the program the Festival staff has handed out. Then, after customary announcements are made, two or three minutes go by and a sudden loud and busy yelling is heard from a strange, drunk homeless man disrupting some members of the crowd near the stage. This turns out to be an actor starting the play with the appearance of Christopher Sly.

YES! They use the often cut bookends of the play with the seemingly useless Christopher Sly character. But the play does a great construction with old Sly by having him double cast also as Petruccio. In a nice transition the drunk asleep Christopher Sly, after seeing the first part of the play put on for him, is transformed into the regal and ‘sly’ Petruccio. As if in a dream the rest of the play occurs.

Petruccio and Kate seem similar oddballs. Kate obviously an outcast for her harsh “shrewness” to the others and Petruccio for his seeming strange thinking and willingness to marry someone who is regarded as a extremely difficult by everyone, even her own father. They have their troubles but then seem to find a unison of some sorts. What this unison is truly still eludes me but I see it, I saw it, happening before me as the play went on.

Great theatre does that so often. It shows you something wonderful happening and when you try to understand why it happened or how or try to add words, it just comes out clunky and confused. The actors and those involved with the creation of Taming achieve that feat in spades. You hear the sexism and you hear the outdated attitudes but the way this production puts it out there makes it seem like one of those weird relationships that’s just a little on it’s side. You don’t quite get it but it seems like it is one that is working.

Then the end comes and Christopher Sly wakes up in the dark stage in the dark and now cold park, with just a lonely ghost light placed on stage by the House Manager (also Pantoja). The bright sunny dream is gone and now just a cold reality. And if you happen to be watching wearing shorts and flip flops and you forgot your jacket in the car then your heart breaks a little when Sly is told to return home and you realize, this man’s home is probably here. Or perhaps not. The warmth of the ghost light seems to warm just a little more when the House Manager lends a friendly arm and walks with Sly off the stage and into the dark. A seeming touch of love bleeding from the dream of Sly into reality.

In her Director’s note, Director Ennals tries to answer why, given the nature of the play, we still perform in and love it in our modern age when similar plays of such sexist nature have largely fallen into the fringes of our culture, if not completely away for good. She says that we are drawn to the relationship of two individuals who are “equally unconventional, opinionated, and powerful” and that their arranged marriage is in stark contrast to the other marriages (like Bianca and Lucentio) that are “based on idealized love-at-first-sight”. Ennals wants you to consider the question “who are the ‘unloveables’ in our society?” as you watch the play unfold. When you do, the play really ties together and leaves a good impression on your heart and mind as you walk away.

This is a difficult play to approach. If you try and make it as a bonding of two equals too much then you seem to be criticized for white washing the play and if you present as is, you stage uncomfortable scenes of sexism. This plays finds that balance and lets the characters be people and their views and actions speak truthfully. But as is true with any performance of a comedic play, it needs to be funny – and this play is funny. The laughter I had is that type of laughter you get that not only makes you happy but joyful. It made the cold worth it and in the end I had a great night with good theatre and good friends. Aside from some audio issues where it was little hard to hear (particularly in the beginning) and bugs flying everywhere as the night got darker, it was a great experience.

Now, if you’ve never gone to see the annual Shakespeare in the Park from the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival then you should go to their website and mark down a day on your calendar to go check it out. They are still at the Amador Valley Community Park in Pleasanton until Sunday July 13, and then they continue their tour of the Bay Area to parks in Cupertino, Redwood City, and then finally San Francisco at the end of August into September. You don’t want to miss this show. Beyond any critiques of theatre or artistic achievement, this play is just a real good time. If you go see this show, you’ll have a good time. What more can you ask from any show? That’s the number one goal in any show, and this one gets there multiple times.

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