A Wild West version of “The Taming of the Shrew” has been so popular in recent years (I counted at least five nationwide on a quick Internet search) that it’s nearly deserving of its own sub-genre.
For those who love the play’s rowdy, rough-and-tumble attitude but are a bit queasy over its sexual politics, the lawlessness of the frontier offers a broad canvas and several ideological escape routes. Dress up Katherine as Annie Oakley and you’re already halfway toward a character. And the transitory nature of the West makes all outcomes liable to change without notice, unlike the established Padua of Shakespeare’s original.
“Shrew” comes to us as the second production from Shakespeare Santa Barbara, the first being “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and both playing on the lawn outside the Fess Parker Winery in Los Olivos. Such a staging necessitates some form of playing to the gods, but the unobtrusive microphones help keep the broad acting to a safe level. (It’s debatable whether Shakespeare’s tragedies could survive in this format, or even whether death and mayhem would be suited for a picnic dinner paired with a 1998 pinot grigio. One can only wait and see.)
Fortunately, director Jackie Apodaca reigns in any artistic excess: There are no stagecoaches here, no horses, nothing too “clever” that draws attention away from the story. In dusty Padua, local rich patriarch and bar owner Baptista (Michael Nehring) offers the hand of his daughter Bianca (Jennifer Johnson) in marriage, but only on the condition that he marry off his wild and unruly older daughter Katherine (Elizabeth Taheri). Enter two strangers in town: Lucentio (Michael Cotter) who falls for Bianca and now must compete with her other suitors, and Petruchio (Jamieson K. Price), a rich and macho cowboy looking for a wife and who decides to take on Katherine as a challenge.
Mr. Price plays Petruchio as a more complex and successful Yosemite Sam, as much rootin’ as he is tootin’. Like Mr. Nehring, he is the company’s Equity actor and brings much charisma to the role, a convincing whirlwind of action. Ms. Taheri is almost his match. Like several of the other actors, it took her a scene or two to find the right balance between caricature and subtlety, between external energy and inner power, something that clicks in everybody once Petruchio comes on the scene.
Shakespeare’s language survives the Texas drawl surprisingly well. An Elizabethan homily such as “my cake is dough both sides” sounds quite modern in delivery (and delivered in this case by Alan Clark as Gremio), something that might pop out of Ted Turner’s mouth in a moment of disappointment. Petruchio’s tales of manly-man adventure seem right at home as a cowboy’s fireside boast.
The company is large and no role goes doubled. Ms. Johnson invests her Bianca with a little duplicity, acting the ditz when it suits her (and it often does), but with claws retracted underneath (she is, after all, Katherine’s sister). Allen Everman II’s Grumio is a good comic foil, though he often strays into pure hayseed pantomime — and is that coonskin cap a nod to Mr. Parker (TV’s Daniel Boone) himself?
Michael Cotter as Lucentio seems unsure whether to pitch the character as comic relief or as romantic sub-lead, engaging in some slapstick in the beginning (some needless pelvic thrusts set the wrong tone) then calming down later, busy being Bianca’s sneaky suitor. Jeff Mills (no relation) is a fine Hortensio — busy doubling as the play’s musical director and sound designer, he ironically winds up with a small guitar smashed over his head.
“The Taming of the Shrew,” one of the Bard’s earliest plays, has at its heart a tribute to the powers of acting. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, disguise and cunning are attractive qualities — all the better to woo and advance in society. It forms director Ms. Apodaca’s answer to the surface sexism of the play. Though she rejects the psychological warfare that makes up her “honeymoon” with Petruchio, a chance to fool a stranger in the street, greeting him as a fair maiden, comes to Katherine as a glimpse of the power found in dissembling. By acting dominated at the end, this former “shrew” achieves her domination over all, escapes her father’s house, inherits Petruchio’s fortune, and in the latter finds a soulmate that understands her character. They’re both cowboys, after all.
(If you plan to attend: The play is outside with lawn seating. Bring a blanket and a low beach chair).
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
When: 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, 6 p.m. Aug. 22-24 and 6 p.m. Aug. 29-31
Where: Fess Parker Winery, 6200 Foxen Canyon Road in Los Olivos
Cost: $20 general; $17 seniors, $15 students