Shakespeare’s feistiest female has come to Pleasanton, and received audience raves for her first weekend. Carla Patoja fabulously inhabits the lead role in the S.F. Shakespeare “Taming of the Shrew," presented free in Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Community Park on weekends through July 13.
The story itself is familiar to many through frequent public performances and from its popular musical version, “Kiss Me, Kate." In every production, however, it is viewed from a different angle and through a different lens. Modern opinions on the play range from feminist anger at such a “sexist” drama, to an emerging appreciation of the subtle give and take between Kate and her “tamer” Petrucchio as a more subversive sub-text.
Audiences eager to experience each director’s unique interpretation will particularly enjoy the way S.F. Shakes Director Rebecca Ennals treats the text. She presents an entertainingly ambivalent portrait of a head-strong bad-tempered woman meeting her match, a reading which would have been the acceptable “happy ending” for Elizabethan audiences. At the same time Kate is shown to be a justifiably unhappy less-cherished older sister to the simperingly-sweet Bianca, as well as an intelligent woman rebelling against the contractual marriage process which allowed the father to decide without consideration of the daughter’s opinion.
Kate’s scorn for most suitors is understandable: they consider women a commodity, weighing her worth in the pounds and pence of her dowry. At first, Petrucchio seems much like the others, saying “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; if weathily, then happily in Padua.” But he soon proves his mettle in a clever and zesty give and take with the equally witty and high-spirited Katherine. It is a duel of words that is a listener’s delight, setting up the expectation that they might actually be a well-matched pair. Even the racier retorts are deftly parried by both debaters; this is certainly no traditionally polite “first conversation."
Petrucchio has clearly described his tactics for dealing with Katherine’s legendary shrewishness at first meeting. Later, after their hasty marriage, he likewise outlines his plan for “gentling” his falcon in the approved fashion of a gamekeeper. It sounds like a process “by the book," yet in Tim Kniffin’s nuanced interpretation, Petrucchio reveals an interest and emotional investment in his “creature” that goes beyond mere mastery and domination. Carla Pantoja as Katherine also betrays a marked appreciation of Petrucchio’s humor and wit, even as she raves and rants about his cruel treatment.
Kate has always experienced people trying to pacify her, which has only goaded her to more temperamental displays. Suddenly seeing how disagreeable such behavior seems must be a shock of self-discovery to her fractious spirit. She actually tries to dissuade her furious husband from beating his servant Grumio, attempts to calm his rage about some over-cooked dinner meat, and becomes less aggressive herself. He is actually playing at being a more “shrewish” person than Kate herself, and does a very convincing job of it. (Actually a “shrew” or “shrow” originally applied to a man, and could still refer to a masculine character in Shakespeare’s day.)
Bit by bit, Kate becomes more conciliatory. When Petrucchio tests her willingness to accept his dictates, she finally decides to play along, not just to appease him, but to enjoy the game herself. First he calls the sun the moon, and she agrees, but when he reverses his opinion, she agrees to that opposite pronouncement as well. It seems to be a game of “I can be as impossibly outrageous as you are," as each partner takes the other’s measure and obviously relishes the process.
Their duel of wills comes to a climax when Petrucchio demands that she kiss him in the street, in front of her father’s house. A shocked Katherine declares that it would be shameful to make such a public display, but when he threatens to take her back home if she crosses his will, she submits and kisses him. How that moment is played becomes the real crux of the play’s interpretation. Is it a perfunctory peck meant to comply in form only (“lip service," as it were), or is it really a heartfelt kiss of love? Far be it from me to spoil the surprise of that scene, but it is a knockout! Enjoy it for yourselves.
In and around the fireworks between Kate and Petrucchio, other plots are brewing around her younger sister Bianca, played by lovely newcomer Monica Ho. Her father, Signior Baptista (popular actor Jesse Caldwell), has decreed that she cannot entertain any suitors until her older sister Kate has wed. So the elderly but wealthy Gremio (multi-tasking Phil Lowery) and the quirky Hortensio (over-the –top Miyaka Cochrane) agree to fund Petrucchio’s wooing expenses, and also to hire tutors for Bianca to help win her favor. Hortensio quite boldly submits himself, barely disguised as a music teacher, while Gremio hires a “learned young student” named Cambio to teach Bianca literature (especially love poetry). Actually “Cambio” is really Lucentio, a gentleman newly-arrived in Padua, and instantly smitten by the sight of Bianca. He exchanges identities with his servant Tranio, who introduces himself as Lucentio, applying for Bianca’s hand with his supposed parental riches.
Baptista is too shrewd to believe Tranio/Lucentio’s promised bridal settlement, and promises his consent only if Lucentio’s father Vincentio appears in person to sign the contract. Now faithful servant Tranio, in addition to playing Lucentio, must also find someone to impersonate Lucentio’s father. As he comically observes, “Fathers commonly do get (beget) their children, but in this case of wooing, a child shall get a sire.” Amy Lizardo makes her debut as this cunning servant, reversing the practice of Shakespeare’s time, when woman’s roles were played by men. In this show, other talented women also play men’s roles, including Patricia Austin as Biondello and Peter, and especially Lizzie Calogero as Curtis, the fake Vincentio, and even the mean-spirited Widow (but lacking a wig for the woman’s role) who finally marries Hortensio.
Phil Wong (a male) playing Petrucchio’s put-upon personal servant Grumio, delivers some of the play’s best one-liners. When Gremio (the elderly suitor), impressed by the educated tutor (Lucentio) he has hired, sighs, “Oh, this learning, what a thing it is!” , Grumio mocks sarcastically “Oh, this woodcock, what an ass it is!” Tranio, like most of Shakespeare’s servants, also has colorful comments which resonate to this day, as, “Let us do as adversaries do in law: Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.” When his master Lucentio burbles about his lofty study goals in Padua, Tranio wisely advises that he not be completely governed by Aristotle (logic), but also admit the influence of Ovid (poet of love), for “No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en," the basis of much current educational theory. So who would dare to call Shakespeare “dated?"
Of course, the final scene in which Kate delivers a scalding rebuke to the other two wives at the wedding feast reads like a typical Protestant sermon on the duties of an Elizabethan wife. Is it truly meant to keep women reminded of their subservient place under their husbands’ Supreme Will? Is it possibly written as a satirical take on what men wanted to hear, but delivered tongue-in –cheek by the liberated Katherine? Or could it be the sincere outpouring of a loving heart acknowledging to all the world her new-found allegiance to her lord? Again, each audience member may decide how to judge this controversial speech, but no one could deny its power as delivered by Carla Pantoja.
The hearty roar of acclamation showed the full audience’s appreciation of a play judiciously edited, very well acted, and clearly enunciated for all to understand. Generous donations filled the actor’s buckets in gratitude for the company’s 15th season in Pleasanton (its 32nd season in the Bay Area). Complete with music that enhances the action and evokes the period, lively dancing, and some pretty impressive staff-wielding by Phil Lowery as the justifiably exasperated Vincentio, the evening also features a delightful and educational Green Show at 7 p.m.
Performances take place Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m. on July 5,6,12, and 13 at Amador Park, corner of Santa Rita Road and Black Avenue. The stage is located behind the swimming pool, and there is ample free parking in the Rec. Center’s lots and along the streets. Attendees are encouraged to bring picnic suppers, blankets, and low-back chairs plus some wraps against the evening chill. Make it a family outing and introduce children to an entertaining Shakespeare play, or plan an adult evening with snacks and wine.
Don’t miss the chance to enjoy this free annual treat in a beautiful setting. And please be generous in supporting the Company’s many great educational projects, from their fabulous Bay Area Shakespeare Camp (July 21 – August 1 in Pleasanton) to the Shakespeare on Tour program (which will bring “As You Like It” to the Pleasanton Library on Sunday, December 10, at 2 p.m.), to participating in local schools.
Come enjoy hearing those memorable phrases that have resonated through the ages. A personal favorite: “Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor; for ’tis the mind that makes the body rich.” What a special motto for this special Valley!