Theater Review | THE TAMING OF THE SHREW launches OSF season on a joyfully high note

It was a dark and stormy night.

No really – it was.

If you were speeding southbound from Portland, trying to make the Friday night show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s gala opening weekend, the drama began long before the familiar tower of the Ashland Springs Hotel came into view or the lights went down in a sold out Bowmer Theatre.

First there was some old-fashioned sturm und drang on I-5.

There was buffeting wind and lashing rain (a good warmup for LEAR’s heath on Sunday) and more slow trucks per mile than any mere mortal should have to endure. Somewhere around the quaint and windowless Seven Feathers casino (Stoppeth not here, O weary traveler!), the skies cleared. After journeying through the back of beyond in Douglas County with the weather gods in high dudgeon, the final descent into southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley was relatively calm.

And as it turns out, the smooth sailing was to continue all weekend with a strong and rewarding opening to the OSF season.

Not that “smooth” means there wasn’t wind, death, mishap, murder, heartbreak, and sorrow. There was plenty of that – on stage. That’s what we were there for. And the bit about a pair of eyes gone missing against their owner’s wishes? Check. Of course, over on the plus side of the human experience ledger, there was also technicolor love, music, warmth, connection, spectacle and laughing (oh yes) into the stratosphere. The whole gamut was on display with four shows across the spectrum of theatre genres.

Sometimes for a grand night at the theatre all you need is a good play. Other times outstanding actors are enough to pull you through. On Friday night OSF’s opener had both in abundance, and the results were raucously fun.

Enter: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW directed by David Ivers.

Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr, left) and Tranio (John Tufts) arrive in Padua. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr, left) and Tranio (John Tufts) arrive in Padua. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Set in a contemporary-ish holiday boardwalk town by the sea (maybe an Atlantic City on the Riviera kind of place), with a ferris wheel looming above and a junk food stand underneath a large neon “Baptista” (as in Minola – the merchant) sign, the play’s locale quickly signals the mirth and lightness to come. We’re on vacation, they’re on vacation (or not really but pretend they are), and everything should work out just fine. Adding to the show’s texture and dramaturgy, atop the street meat vendor’s hut is a three piece live “rockabilly” (somehow using quotes makes this genre name more palatable) band.

In no time at all, the core dramatic machinery is rolled out, plugged in, turned on, and we’re off. Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr) falls hard for Bianca (the too attractive Royer Bockus), who is busy giving the Heisman to half the province’s male population, but especially to wannabe suitors Gremio (David Kelly) and Hortensio (Jeremy Peter Johnson). To get closer to the object of his desire, Lucentio decides to go undercover as a Latin tutor. But his (Lucentio’s) original persona can’t just disappear from the scene entirely, so he gets lowly servant Tranio (John Tufts) to don his (Lucentio’s) outrageous dayglo Nantucket summer duds and impersonate his well-heeled master.

Now Bianca, daughter of Baptista (Robert Vincent Frank), has a shrewish sister you may have heard of – Kate (Nell Geisslinger). Then there’s Petruchio (Ted Deasy), a Harley rider in town looking for a woman to put on the back of his bike, who locks on Kate. There’s a hitch though – Papa Baptista won’t let Bianca get any action until Kate has been auctioned – er – married off. Unfortunately, Kate’s just a wee bit of a ball buster and goes through life as delicately as a D9 bulldozer trying to cut across a golf green. So getting her settled won’t be easy. That’s the core set of characters and the central agon, but this being Shakespeare, there’s hordes of other people running around dramatically doing stuff.

Left waiting at the alter, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is not a happy woman. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Left waiting at the alter, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is not a happy woman. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Ivers revs the entire enterprise up to the level of an Olympic paced farce, which worked great for me. Sometimes trying to finish in under three hours is about as attainable in Shakespeare as it is running the marathon, so when in doubt – speed it up (works better with the comedies than tragedies). While no Shakespeare scholar myself, I daresay the purist types will have some things to say here about various liberties taken with the script. But – whatever. What Ivers achieves is to make the thing darn good fun for all. With the setting and tone established, the show becomes a platform for OSF’s actors to put the pedal down and keep us laughing. Hard.

On the subject of laughing, there is the matter of David Kelly (Gremio) and John Tufts (Tranio – but in disguise most of the play as his social better and master, Lucentio). For the benefit of public safety and general order, not to mention the moral fibre of our nation’s youth, it may be a good idea to keep these two chained up somewhere out of view in future. Maybe give them desk jobs in the bookstore. Or at least require them to undergo long, rigorous multi-year training (it’s gonna take a while) so they can learn how to be less funny. Because as is, all these two need to do is walk on stage and the show is stolen faster than an unlocked Camaro on the Jersey shore.

Kelly, who so memorably regaled us with the “fruits of my diseased loins” a few years back in AN IMAGINARY INVALID is hysterical. Done up in Bermuda shorts and knee high white socks, he races around in a sex-deprived fever grinding his pelvis. It’s actually a lot more enjoyable than that may sound. Like many, many OSF actors, Kelly, with his superb physicality and humor, can take us to a place we can ONLY reach in the theatre during live performance. If there is a god – and during the high points of comedy you’re tempted to think there is – surely s/he intended for us to be front and center watching spectacle like this on a Friday night. Kelly’s performance (and the OSF rep model) generates even more admiration when you come back the next night and there he is again – this time in MY FAIR LADY as Colonel Pickering.

Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr, left) and Hortensio (Jeremy Peter Johnson), don disguises to woo Bianca (Royer Bockus). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr, left) and Hortensio (Jeremy Peter Johnson), don disguises to woo Bianca (Royer Bockus). Photo by Jenny Graham.

But wait – John Tufts. I had seen him before in some of the Henrys, where he was very solid and funny. But I must have missed the memo where it was announced that he could also be LIKE THIS on stage. Tufts kills it – and us – time and again. He’s in some whole other register of physical comedy I had no idea he could do. Watching him nail his character’s imagined portrayal of an upper class accent and manner is deliriously funny and quite frankly may interfere a bit with some of the play, because no one can hear a word anyone else is saying – we’re laughing too hard at Tufts.

Tufts’s facial grimace (it’s painful to be rich!) is lovely, and his lockjaw diction as he preens around and knowingly hams to the audience is priceless. And he is fast! At one moment there’s a brilliant physical touch of burning money, but it happens at the exact same pace that we realize what is about to happen – that is, instantly. Poof. Gone. There are no lags, no pauses. Ivers keeps everyone moving.

Watching Kelly and Tufts alone is worth a trip to Ashland. But of course there’s a lot more to like in this show, which could easily be seen 2-3 times to take in the sheer scope of madness and joyful exuberance on display.

In the end, stuff happens, people find their loves, impostors are unmasked. Tranio goes back to being himself instead of masquerading as Lucentio (sadly). And we the troops file out of the Bowmer knowing we have just seen a real keeper.

A great kickoff for the year and an experience you won’t want to miss.