June 10, 2016 at 12:05 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Dragging up the Bard
Oliver Thornton, gay news, Washington Blade

Oliver Thornton

Oliver Thornton

 

‘The Taming of the Shrew’

 

Through June 26

 

Shakespeare Theatre Company

 

Sidney Harman Hall

 

610 F St., N.W.

 

202-547-1122

After 14 years of doing musical theater in London’s West End, Oliver Thornton set his sights on Broadway and moved to New York.

“I arrived two years ago without knowing a single person, but I felt it was time to shake things up with a big life challenge. And I was right.”

The out actor’s most recent challenge is playing Bianca, the younger, fairer sister in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s all-male production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” While it’s not Thornton’s first time in heels — in London he donned drag for “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and as Frank N Furter, the sweet transvestite in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show “ — this time it’s different.

“Here I’m portraying an actual woman,” Thornton says. “Audience members say they can quickly accept that the male cast members playing female parts are women. What I find so interesting about doing an all-male is that the lines of gender blur. You see characters as people.”

One of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, “Shrew” with its treating of women as commodities isn’t the easiest of works.

“It’s misogynistic,” says Thornton, 36. “There are lines and themes that make us wince. Because the cast is all male, it alters the perspective to some degree without changing the content. It doesn’t feel as bad.”

Staged by out director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the production is immersive, which means the actors interact with the audience before the play begins and during the intermission. He’s also added music to the classic. The score is from the back catalogue of singer songwriter Duncan Sheik.

“Rehearsing the show was absolutely epic,” Thornton says. “Learning songs in addition to the play was a lot. I’m from musical theater background, but hadn’t sung this type of pop music. Fortunately the music lends itself to theater. The lyrics are story telling driven and something that I could get into.”

Thornton’s Bianca is a willowy blonde model circa 1950s la dolce vita. More precisely, she’s the face of the family’s fashion house and her father’s favorite. Suitors are in no short supply. But the hitch is that Bianca cannot marry before her older angry sister Katherina, played by Maulik Pancholy (best known as Jonathan from TV “30 Rock”), ties the knot. Sweet and demure, Bianca makes the perfect foil to her hellcat sibling. The cast also features out actors André de Shields, Rick Hammerly and Tom Story.

Prior to studying theater in London, Thornton trained in classical ballet in his native Wales.

“I’m convinced that dance sets anyone up for life better than anything else. It definitely makes getting the physicality of a part easier. Understanding the body and how physicality tells a story helps an actor immensely. With Bianca I wanted to create lightness in her character and give a finish and polish to her. My dance background made that possible.”

Thornton is admittedly smitten with the vastness and variety of the American theater world.

“In London,” he says, “the scene is smaller and productions must turn a profit unless they’re at one or two of the government-funded theaters. West End shows have to make money. Consequently everyone is reluctant to take risks. In the U.S., the focus is on what’s the hot new ticket. Everyone wants to create the next new thing like ‘Hamilton.’ If you land it, it’s going to be huge.”

For now, he’s enjoying being Bianca.

“Some actors like to bury themselves in research. I find it a bit stifling. It took time to relax into Bianca. It was a bit trickier than I expected. But as time went I’ve gotten to know her, and I like her a lot.”

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