IT'S ALWAYS great to see a play really come together from top to bottom. It's even better when you know it's the start of something really good to come.
Such is the case with the inaugural production from Savannah Shakes, a local troupe devoted to making a true Shakespeare revival happen here.
Setting Shakespeare in modern or non-standard times and places is nowhere near new or groundbreaking, to be sure. But Savannah Shakes is taking things to the next level in ways this town hasn't really seen.
Beginning with this month's Taming of the Shrew, they will stage an honest-to-goodness play cycle of contemporized plays from the Bard, progressing chronologically through the 20th Century.
Shrew was an inspired choice to kick it all off; unlike most Shakespeare comedies, it needs neither mistaken-identity plot twists nor fairy dust to pull off the love story, and so is easily moveable through the centuries.
The play's central struggle between two strong, stubborn, sexy personalities —Petruchio (Zachary Burke) and Katherine (Deanna Greif)—is a straightforward case study in sexual dynamics, nearly as current in a present-day rom-com as in the 1500s Italy in which Shrew was originally set.
Director Sheila Lynne made the decision to set this Shrew in the 1940s, as the troops return home from World War II. To that end, Big Band standards form the play's soundtrack, and Petruchio is a returning Army Air Force pilot. (The program refers to him as a "fighter pilot," but since he clearly has a crew that served with him, he's likely a bomber pilot. No matter.)
Shrew's meaty, madcap cast of secondary characters—many of them Petruchio's veteran buddies in this envisioning—makes the match with the '40s even better, allowing for a wide range of Marx Brothers/Three Stooges slapstick.
(There's plenty of slapstick to go around, but Travis Spangenburg as Petruchio's best bud/lead sycophant Grumio carries the heaviest load, and does so with panache.)
Physical comedy is extremely difficult to do well. There's a reason why Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are routinely called geniuses. This cast pulls off the pranks with effortless ease, delivering belly laugh after belly laugh with an assortment of increasingly ludicrous hijinks.
In this production, Kate—played in fiery, confident fashion by Greif—is modeled directly on the iconic Rosie the Riveter. However, any attempt to put a feminist overlay on the material is deeply problematic, if not impossible, given that the entire message of the play seems chauvinistic in the extreme.
Indeed, the play generally ends with a famous monologue from Kate—devastatingly delivered here by Greif—which is literally the opposite of feminism. The Shrew is Tamed, get it?
Lynne brilliantly works around this potentially very unsatisfying paradox by including two creative, entertaining "bookends" to the main story.
I won't spoil the surprise, but suffice to say that Rosie the Riveter's catch phrase, "We Can Do It," carries the day.
Zach Burke has charisma to burn, and is very believable as the dickish yet magnetic Petruchio. At a few points Burke channels Bob Crane's old school alpha-male charm straight out of Hogan's Heroes.
But the truth is Petruchio is something of a sociopath: What he can't get through his good looks and smooth talk he's perfectly willing to take by force.
I might have liked to see a bit more of Petruchio's dark side, but in the modernized context that may not have played so well after all.
Burke and Greif are very well-matched and clearly expertly rehearsed. As strong as the rest of the cast is, they all melt away when Petruchio and Kate embark on their set-piece showdowns of wit and will.
However, I'm still unable to tell you the exact point where the Shrew realized she was Tamed, and what accounts for her change of heart.
I was like, uh wait, what just happened here? I'd like to have seen director and cast focus in on that pivot point and really hammer it home.
As excellent as the leads are, what makes this show really stand out is the supporting cast. Shrew is particularly blessed with distinctive secondary characters, such as the foppishly competitive suitors Lucentio and Gremio, wonderfully played by Sam Collura and Darryl H. Thompson. Lynne's casting is as pitch-perfect as the performances.
Savannah Shakes co-founder and old Shakespeare hand Christopher Soucy is hilarious as Kate's dad Baptista. Playing the character as sort of a benevolent Mafioso, complete with Goodfellas accent, Soucy manages to keep the character gently approachable despite his own imposing physical presence.
The cast member most at home with the cadences of the text is Mike Moore as Hortensio, another knucklehead vying for the hand of Kate's sister Bianca (delightfully played by Megan Mazzocconne).
Opting for a completely naturalistic approach to the dialogue, Moore seems as comfortable with Elizabethan patois as one born in the time—freeing him up to explore the comedic aspects of the role.
Anyone familiar with Savannah theatre already knows Lynita Spivey is the cream of the crop. Here, as Biondello, she shows once again her unmatched comedic timing. Every decision she makes as an actress is simply perfect.
And David Withun, tasked with carrying both bookends almost completely on his own, tackles the job with aplomb and hilarity.
You only have one weekend left to enjoy Taming of the Shrew, and shows are selling out quick. Make reservations now. cs