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Love, Actually

Production Finds Romance Among Fortune Lust

COUPLING: B.J. Gailey eyes Kate Michelsen-Graham in a light-hearted Taming Of The Shrew.

By John Barry | Posted 6/7/2006

Taming of the Shrew

By William Shakespeare

Through July 9 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park

Is Taming of the Shrew a misogynistic rant or a love story? It’s the eternal question, which, in our more enlightened age, any director has to confront. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, with this pleasantly comic version of the old standby, leans toward the latter interpretation. Patrick Kilpatrick lays his cards on the table with his director’s notes, where he claims that in the process of production he suddenly realized what Shakespeare’s early comedy is all about: love.

Petruchio (B.J. Gailey) might disagree. When he arrives in Padua, he’s got one thing on his mind: money. He’s just inherited a fortune from his father, and he’s trying to rake in more. When he finds that the shrewish Katherine (Kate Michelsen-Graham) is his route to her family fortune, he takes the requisite steps. Kate’s father, Baptista (Steve Beall), is desperate to get her off his hands, and he gives the bride away without consultation. There’s no courtship. All Petruchio has to do is break the news to Kate. Then he has to break her. Yeah, there’s a dose of tenderness, especially at the story’s end, but then there’s tenderness in The Honeymooners, too. Turning it into a love story requires a little cutting and pasting.

That could be why Kilpatrick leaves out the first two scenes without informing you that they ever existed. Shakespeare’s “Induction” opening involves a drunken bar crawler, Christopher Sly, who gets persuaded, in the depths of an alcohol-induced stupor, that he’s actually a British lord. The pranksters who came up with the ruse wind up performing a “pleasant comedy” for him, as a way of easing him back into sobriety—that comedy is Taming of the Shrew.

Maybe Shakespeare is just fiddling around. You never know. The play goes more smoothly without the induction—but let’s assume that he’s framing the play by getting it performed in an alehouse as a sort of mind game being played on a hapless drunkard. It makes sense then that, uncorked, this is less of a love story than a bawdy romp.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s kinder, gentler version leaves the cork firmly in the bottle. And as the play progresses, it’s clear that this production’s energy is directed toward the eventual resolution of three parallel love stories. The central one involves Petruchio’s conquest of the shrewish Katherine. Lucentio (Scott Graham) finally finds his way into the arms of Katherine’s gentler sister Bianca (Ashly Ruth Fishell). And Hortensio (Jacob Rothermel), after being rejected by Bianca, gets the rich widow he’s been looking for. Rough edges are generally smoothed over, and, by the end, everyone’s happy.

It’s an acceptable interpretation, especially since this accomplished company of actors spends the next month at the ruins in Ellicott City alternating this comedy with King Lear. After watching the emotional dismemberment of an infirm old man, sprinkling a little tenderness into Shrew is certainly an antidote. But something gets lost as well: the cheerfully rambunctious tribute to henpecked husbands everywhere.

If most actresses play Katherine with nails bared, Michelsen-Graham is a little subdued. Katherine isn’t exactly a hellhound, and even the occasional bursts of anger feel a little out of character. If anything, Michelsen-Graham’s Katherine is worried—justifiably, perhaps—that she’s being handed over to a stranger without much of a résumé.

Gailey’s convincing and forceful Petruchio is a pillar of bearded machismo, against whom Katherine doesn’t really stand a chance. He comes and, as promised, he conquers. He’s got money, he wants more, and he’ll do anything to get it.

But the duels between the two couples are a little subdued. Their first meeting is supposed to be an all-out power struggle; here, Katherine grudgingly accepts her fate. This version smoothes over the bawdiness and the mud wrestling and moves to what director Kilpatrick calls the “love” at the heart of the story.

Graham’s Lucentio and Fishell’s Bianca add a comic dimension to the play that is frequently passed over. Lucentio is hopelessly in love with Bianca, and Fishell energizes her, turning the sweet, younger sister into a mischievous, opportunistic cock-tease.

In the end, this unadorned, low-key Shrew might be best looked at as the first half of a doubleheader. With King Lear, many of the same actors will be up to their elbows in blood and eyeballs. It should be an interesting juggling act, as the company alternates these two plays through June and early July.

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