Breaking Bard

Good performances redeem Jobsite's Taming of the Shrew — but bring earplugs.

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click to enlarge PROSE BEFORE HO'S: Memorable performances by Shawn Paonessa and Katrina - Stevenson highlight Jobsite's redux of The Taming of the Shrew. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOBSITE THEATER
PHOTO COURTESY OF JOBSITE THEATER
PROSE BEFORE HO'S: Memorable performances by Shawn Paonessa and Katrina Stevenson highlight Jobsite's redux of The Taming of the Shrew.

For most of act one, it looks like Shawn Paonessa, Katrina Stevenson and Michael C. McGreevy will keep Jobsite Theater's The Taming of the Shrew from disintegrating into a confusing shoutfest.

While just about everyone else on stage is speaking a mile a minute and bellowing their lines with forced exuberance, these three actors are, simply enough, telling a meaningful story.

Paonessa is Petruchio, who, for the sake of a hefty dowry, has decided to marry the vicious, bad-tempered Katharina. Stevenson is Katharina, who may have good reason for being so nasty — after all, she's a capable woman in a society that has no use for strong females — and in any case, possesses three dimensions in a two-dimensional milieu. And McGreevy is Baptista, father of Katharina and her younger sister Bianca. He's a sensible enough figure, committed to seeing his older daughter married before he'll give way to any of the younger woman's suitors. For much of the first act, these three actors not only hold our attention, they console us for the madness the rest of the actors are demonstrating.

But then comes act two, Petruchio and Katharina marry, and Paonessa and Stevenson become as loud and inhuman as everyone else. This is the section in which the "taming" of the title takes place, and we should expect some exaggeration. But, as directed by David M. Jenkins, both bride and groom in this act become noisily and painfully boisterous, and it's near-impossible to discover a psychological reality behind their performances. If the result were genuinely comic, we might reason that, after all, Shrew is a farce filled with caricatures. But there are few good laughs throughout this exercise, no matter how hard the actors try to muscle us into mirth. So we're left with the image of the performers apparently having a great old time, while we in the audience keep waiting to get the joke.

Of course, Shrew is a problematic text even when it's well played. This story of an angry, willful woman who's essentially tortured into submission by her gold-digging new husband, is patently sexist — even in 1897, George Bernard Shaw could opine that "the last scene [in which Katherina accepts her lowliness] is altogether disgusting to modern sensibility." I suppose an argument could be made that Stevenson's excesses in act two are there to show us that Katherina's transformation is just "play-acting," but that's not what the acting communicates, and anyway, that doesn't explain why Paonessa also goes over-the-top.

Nor does cross-gender casting in several of the small parts act to serve as a balance to the chauvinistic implications of the text. For example, Katie Castonguay is a tolerable Bianca, though her performance never explains why so many men want to marry her. But as the male servant Grumio, she's just another incomprehensibly manic caricature in fast-forward, no more a comment on male/female differences than a statement about the federal debt ceiling. Tia Jemison at least plays her cross-gender role with some dignity, but there's no attempt here to comment on sexual identity. And even when they stick to their own gender, Jason Vaughan Evans and Jon Gennari are incomprehensible — there were times when I wanted to ask the whole cast to slow down and enunciate. As for the portentous quotes on male/female sexuality that are projected onto a screen before the play begins, they don't begin to convince us that we're seeing a wised-up, ironical deconstruction. This Shrew is not about gender. What it's about is forced ebullience — and noise.

The play speeds by on Brian Smallheer's lackluster set, basically a collection of platforms and doorways and then that one projection surface. The uncredited costumes are contemporary, and the lighting, also by Jenkins, is fine. Jenkins' adaptation of Shakespeare's script is efficient, reducing five acts to two, and the often-excised frame story is excised here without incident.

But the real problem with Shrew is, what to do with its sexism, and the solutions attempted here don't convince for a moment. At the end of the day, this is still the story of a man who breaks the will of a woman, an act which the audience is supposed to applaud. Surely some reinterpretation is called for. And surely it's not the one currently attempted at the Shimberg Playhouse by this frenetic Jobsite troupe.

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