May 10, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
The wild west

‘The Taming of the Shrew’
Through June 10
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol Street, SE
$39-$65 (discounts available)
202-608-1719

From left, Danny Scheie, Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at Folger Theatre. (Photo by Jeff Malet courtesy Folger)

It was while watching the HBO series “Deadwood,” writes/director Aaron Posner in the program notes for Folger Theatre’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” that he first became inspired to set his production in the American West, circa 1890. While Posner admits it’s not a totally original take on the Bard’s battle of the sexes — it’s been done before — the move from Padua to the Old West works: the raucous, defiant aspects of Shakespeare’s early comedy translate quite nicely.

Because Posner has dropped the play’s official Induction, a cute framing device that establishes “Shrew” as a play within in a play, his fast-paced and funny production jumps quickly into the unconventional courtship of fortune-hunting gambler Petruchio and Katherine, the ornery shrew (played by real life husband and wife Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris). At first, Katherine wants no part of love and marriage, but through an assortment of carefully executed psychological and physical tortures Petruchio remarkably alters her into the most obliging of wives.

Norris’ Katherine is a sort of hard-drinking, pistol-packing Calamity Jane for whom a future of happy domesticity seems impossible or a real longshot at best; but, again, Petruchio’s abuse works wonders in tempering Katherine’s obstinate disposition. Yes, it’s all very sexist stuff, but Norris is a smart actor with a deft touch, and her transformation from shrew to obedient wifey is nuanced — it’s more about discovering love and finding a new way to live.

Similarly, Nickell’s charming Petruchio is clearly smitten with his Kate, and it’s a love that proves sincere. When he outfits his bride in elegant new duds, Petruchio strives to please by giving her pants and a beautiful pair of black boots complete with spurs. And after proving his wife’s changed nature in a high stakes bet, he hands the winnings over to Katherine. The pair is a team, and it bodes well for a happy and equal marriage.

The comedy’s secondary romantic subplot involves a complicated competition between the suitors of Katherine’s younger more desirable sister, Bianca (Sarah Mollo-Christensen). Her eager wannabe husbands are played by Marcus Kyd, Craig Wallace and Thomas Keegan. Katy Carkuff is a standout as a boozy, well-off widow. James Gardiner and gay actor Danny Sheie play the comic servants.

In a nod to the changing roles of frontier women, Posner has made some intriguing gender-bending choices. The part of Katherine and Bianca’s father Baptista has been changed to a same-named, marriage-brokering mother played by Sarah Marshall, who’s gay. Her Baptista is comically reminiscent of the silver screen types played by Jo Van Fleet and Mercedes McCambridge: Prosperous, independent, tightly wound and willing to level a shotgun when necessary.

The traditionally male Tranio, a clever servant who goes undercover for his master, is also female for this production. As Tranio, Holly Twyford (also gay), swaps out a dull long dress and petticoat for a dapper copper suit and jauntily worn boater. Tranio’s put on squared-off shoulders and masculine walk are belied by touching instances when Twyford reveals the vulnerable young woman beneath the phony moustache, and these are lovely moments indeed.

Tony Cisek’s set is a two-tiered saloon made from roughly hewn wood. Through its swinging doors lie endless plains and big sky. Helen Q. Huang heightens the effect of her beautiful period costumes with subtle flourishes of fancy, freeing them from being too overly moored to time and place.

Additionally, singer/songwriter Cliff Eberhardt in the role of “The Blind Balladeer” performs his bluesy, witty, heartfelt tunes intermittently throughout the play. It’s a wonderful touch that entertainingly trains the spotlight on the characters’ intentions and passions.

At the top of the show, we’re told the evening will end “after [the players] dance.” It’s a promise kept. Posner closes the play with an old fashioned rousing line dance, sending the audience off with a big shot of the Wild West, fun and romance.

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