BY SANDY STAGGS
John Fagan has tamed many a shrew in his nearly 20 years as Producing Director of the Upstate Shakespeare Festival. That’s why, for the first time in seven years, Fagan handed over the metaphoric whip to longtime USFer Amber Ensley, who proves her prowess in malts-a-plenty and hair gel in this cheery version of the Bard’s play.
Set in the schmaltzy mindset of 1950s a la “Grease” Italian-style replete with a diner, B-movie drive-in and loads of swing skirts, scarves and pony tails, “The Taming of the Shrew” revolves around Baptista (the always delightful Brian Reeder) and his efforts to marry off his two daughters: the beautiful and genteel Bianca (Kat Stoneback) who has an army of suitors beckoning, and the eldest Katherina ( Mary Pochatko in fine, plucky form), the independent, bullish and tempestuous woman who eschews any attempt by her father to settle down and marry.
But Baptista vows to hold his favored daughter’s chastity close to his vest until a man can take the incorrigible Kate off his hands.
The lucky fellow who is up to the task of “taming” her is Petruchio (played by Hudson Meeks sans his beard and long hair from last month’s “The Winter’s Tale”). But Kate doesn’t make it easy for him. She launches into a petulant food fight of flying spaghetti and begrudgingly walks down the aisle, only to find her groom drunk and sauntering in a pair of valentine boxers.
Pochatko, who plays Kate as a more physical rather than psychological adversary, matches wits with Meeks, a driven and methodical actor who is quite dashing with his Elvis Presley sideburns, and all the more reason to finally pucker up when he pulls her close more than once with “Kiss me Kate.”
Alas, there are a few other standouts here too such as an impressive dual performance by John Carino as Lucentio who courts Bianca disguised as a geeky tutor, and the dexterous Jaimie Malphrus as his servant Tranio, who also poses as Lucentio, a typical Shakespearean device of impersonation.
But none take the tiramisu like Matt McCuen who, in a dash of extra Italian gender-bending seasoning by Ensley, steals his scenes in a very minor role as Vincentia (Vicentio in the original script) with hilarity and pure ludicrosity in blonde Shirley Temple curls and frock, invoking little Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie.”
Lest we not forget a cameo by MJ Maurer (last year’s Goth Queen Tamora, USF stalwart Simon Crowe as an elderly suitor and Cameron Trieper as a wealthy widow. Rounding out the cast are Charlie Stowe, DeAndre Weaver, David Neal Edwards, Katie Halstengard, Bronson Delgado and Allison Mitchell.
Ensley’s “Shrew” has a fundamentally pleasant and feminine aesthetic that seems to eradicate many of those claims of misogyny in modern criticism of the play. And by setting the action in the innocence of the 1950s when most women were quite content to stand by their men even if it was primarily in the kitchen, makes the ending palatable as the tamed, lovelorn Kate sets the record straight on a woman’s duty to her husband.
In addition to the numerous 1950s pop tunes, Sarah Greene’s costumes are the picture of perfection as are the numerous dance steps (Allison Mitchell choreographs), particularly a winsome number with a gaggle of teeny boppers in a sugary cute routine at the soda shop.
“The Taming of the Shrew” continues through Thursdays – Sundays at 7 p.m. through July 29 at River Falls Park in Greenville. FREE but donations are accepted.