by Terrance Mc Arthur
Introducing one of the most fascinating Shakespeare characters you’ve probably never heard of–Christopher Sly. He’s a scoundrel, a drunk and dominates the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, but he doesn’t appear in most productions (You won’t find him in the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film version or the musical Kiss Me, Kate, which is built on the play). Well, the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production isn’t like most productions. Christopher Sly is back!
Most articles about this WSF show don’t talk much about Sly. They center on the fact that it’s an all-female cast, with women playing men and women playing men playing women, since women weren’t allowed on the stage in Shakespeare’s time. Of course, it is an elegant solution to the Festival’s ongoing problem of getting enough men to audition for parts in the plays, when there are many qualified women vying for a limited number of female roles. This gambit gives more than a few good women a chance to shine.
Renee Newlove has cavorted through several roles on Woodward Park’s stages and is a good choice for the tipsy Sly, having observed much in her bartender years. Sly wanders across the stage and through the audience, mumbling and slurring conversations like a cross between Dudley Moore’s Arthur and Michael Meyers’ imitation of Ronny Woods from the Rolling Stones. Sly is punked by a travelling Lord, and is suddenly treated as a nobleman recovering from years of dementia-induced wandering as a peddler and beggar. Newlove shows confusion at this change of fortune, and then enthusiastically embraces the good life, tossing random Shakespearean quotations–and self–into a play performed to celebrate Sly’s return to sanity.
That play is what is usually thought of as The Taming of the Shrew, with clever Petruchio wooing and wedding the acerbic and violent Katherine, so that others can woo her younger sister, the beautiful Bianca. Once married, Petruchio sets out to “tame” his “shrew,” to temper her spirit. With an all-female cast, some of the tensions are changed, but the changes are interesting.
Suzanne Grazyna is a slick, resourceful Petruchio. There is an aura of “I can get away with anything, because I am dressed as a man…even when I’m not,” as if Shakespeare and director Aaron Spjute have freed her from the restrictions of femininity. Kathie Mollica’s costumes give her a forceful head start on that sense of strength.
Donna Halliburton is tall and powerful, her size a towering match for Petruchio’s masculinity. Halliburton oozed malevolence as a witch in Macbeth, but she gets to impart a regal confidence that she is the match for any man able to overlook the simpering charms of her sister.
Sarah Sherwood has a vocal-performance background that serves her ably as the fluttering Bianca, manipulating her many suitors and Jessica Reedy shifts well from a witch to a frustrated father. GJ Thelin, as always, seems to be several places at once, a cast of thousands in one frantic package. If you go to the WSF production of The Taming of the Shrew for the novelty of women playing men, you’ll stay for the spectacle of performers playing masterfully.
The Taming of the Shrew plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through August 16 at 8 p.m. on the Festival Stage in Woodward Park near the dog park area and the northeast entrance. The play is free, but the park entrance fee is $5 per car. Learn more about the rest of the shows this season on KRL’s local theatre event page.
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