Review: The Taming of the Shrew by The Baron's Men
by Michael Meigs

This show was a lot of fun.

First, for the setting - - a Sunday afternoon in mild fall weather in Texas, in the park-like setting near the sweep of the river. The Curtain Theatre is a Globe-type construction with an Elizabethan thrust stage and gallery seating. The host, unfortunately, was absent, because he was visiting the international space station. Thanks to Richard Garriott for his generosity to Shakespeare and to Shakespearians!
(photo: Josh Baker)Producer Pam Martin said that the house had held its full  capacity of 130 spectators on Friday’s free night of theatre. We on Sunday afternoon were pleasantly sun-dazzled, but the night productions must be memorable. In the evenings flaming torches posted by the playing space provide illumination, although with some subtle assistance from modern electricity. For example, here are photos by Josh Baker from the company’s production of The Comedy of Errors.
(photo: Josh Baker)
The Baron’s Men pride themselves on sticking close to the Elizabethan tradition, playing the characters in broad and with bawdy. Given that affinity for things Elizabethan and the assertive image on the show poster, I had assumed that this would be completely masculine company, with Kate the shrew acted by a man with football player shoulders. 
Jennifer Rose DavisIn fact, the opposite was the case. Gender changes in this show move in the opposite direction, with some very capable women taking men’s parts. The standout of those transformations was musician/singer/actor Jennifer Davis, serving up the musical prologue and entr’acte, as well as delivering a canny performance as Petruccio’s rascally servant Grumio.
In our days, for some the litmus test for The Taming of the Shrew is the decision taken by director and cast for the portrayal of Katherine, “plain Kate,/ And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst.” How malevolent is she? Can we justify the breaking of her spirit, if indeed it is broken? Is Petruccio indeed her unquestioned master?
The Baron’s Men and women under the direction of Jamey Coolie play it for straight comedy, with not too many worries about political correctness. 
In that, they have the bounty of the larger-than-life Brian Martin as Petruccio and Katrina O’Keefe as Kate. 
Brian Martin (ALT photo)

Martin with his big voice, confidence and rollicking presence is a capital Petruccio. He is “live” every minute on stage, alert to the action and smiling a crocodile’s grin at the discomfits of the other suitors. Here, we sense, is the man who’ll show the others how it’s done.

Katrina O'Keefe
From her first spat with sister Bianca, this Katherine, comes across as more put upon and neglected, hungry for attention, than really curs’d. Her father Baptista dismisses her rather than cringing from her. 
From her first spat with sister Bianca, this Katherine, comes across as more put upon and neglected, hungry for attention, than really curs’d. Her father Baptista dismisses her rather than cringing from her. 
O’Keefe has the physical presence for a real harpy and she thoroughly intimidates other suitors. Above, she rolls over Hortensio, played by Aaron Niemuth with good diction and flurries of nervous defensive gestures.
Petruccio’s blandishments awaken in her a wonder that the man should pay such attention to her. We readily imagine her falling in love with him.
Brian Martin, Katrina O'Keefe (ALT photo)

Her early bonding to Petruccio makes some of his later stunts less comic for us. When he denies her dinner or denounces the tailor for delivering, rather than a dress, “A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby's cap,” Kate’s reaction has more disappointment than flaming anger. Accordingly, there is not much tension in the final “wager” scene. Our amusement there comes more from the contrast between the characters -- the serene, fulfilled Kate, admonishing both the precious, spoiled Bianca and Hortensio’s rich widow/wife, who is a real shrew. 

I generally bristle and get dismissive when someone compares a live theatre production to a film adaptation of the play, so let me apologize in advance. My only excuse is that Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 version of this play with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is printed in my brain.

Athena Peters, Casey Weed (ALT photo)In that adaptation and in many others, Lucentio the as-yet penniless scholar venturing to Padua is played as the romantic hero, a serious young fellow who wins the heart of Baptista's non-curs'd daughter, Bianca. Zeffirelli cast the slim, serious, Oxford-posh Michael York in that role, providing a complete contrast to Burton.

The Baron's Men and women stick instead to their concept of jolly farce and cast Casey Weed as Lucentio and Athena Peters as Bianca -- as happily clownish a pair of lovers as you might ever come across. Just in case you didn't get the message, check out their attire! Hortensio discovers them in the garden making puppy love, with licks included.They play that delicious mad mime, appropriately enough, on the front steps of the thrust stage.

The costumes in this production are gorgeous, replete with ruffles, bows, pleats, colors and flourishes. Petruccio alone has at least three full outfits, and every actor is beautifully kitted out.

Michael O'Keefe, Jess Downs (ALT photo)For example, here are Michael O'Keefe as Baptista Minola the father and Jess Downs as servant Tranio pretending to be Lucentio.

And one last ghost of the Zeffirelli version: Aaron Niemuth recalls for me the great Victor Spinetti in that film. He doesn't have the glassy motionless panic of Spinetti's Hortensio, but he is consistently foolish and self-fooling, right down to his farcical departure with his untamed widow/wife holding him by the ear.

The Baron's Men recently achieved recognition and affiliation with the Austin Circle of Theatres, which probably brings them additional resources. They may now echo Petruccio,

And I have thrust my selfe into this maze,
Happily to wive and thrive, as best I may:
Crownes in my purse I have, and goods at home,
And so may come abroad to see the world.

Soye world of Central Texas, the Baron's Men (and women) invite you abroad to their Globe.  On their website they include a meticulous map and directions to guide you the Curtain Theatre. It's a short trip and well worth the very modest price of admission.

YouTube: pirated reproduction of Hortensio (Spinetti) persuading Petruccio (Burton) to woo Katherina Minola


The Taming of the Shrew
by William Shakespeare
The Baron's Men

October 17 - October 25, 2008
The Curtain Theatre
7400 Coldwater Canyon Dr.
Austin, TX, 78730