On Friday night, my wife and I went down to L.A. to catch the second production of the Independent Shakespeare Company’s summer season, The Taming of the Shrew. Presented for free in Griffith Park, the show was played on a fairly minimalist stage with bare-bones lighting, with the crowd sitting on blankets and low chairs on a sloping hill before the stage.
Formed in 1998 by husband and wife David Melville and Melissa Chalsma on the Lower East Side in New York City, the Independent Shakespeare Company moved to Los Angeles in 2001, starting in small venues but moving to Barnsdall Park for Free Shakespeare in the Park. By 2010, they had moved their summer season to Griffith Park and the next year they find a small indoor venue as well.
For Taming, Chalsma performed the part of Katherine, with Melville directing the piece and co-writing some of the incidental music; for the other summer production, Twelfth Night, Chalsma took on the directorial duties with Melville as Feste. As with the co-founders, many of the actors and production staff worked on both shows as well.
Melville has envisioned Taming in La Dolce Vita-esque Italy of the 1960’s, replete with paparazzi, nuns, and lounge singers. Broad comic strokes (with touches bordering on commedia del’arte), especially in the supporting characters of Tranio, Hortensio, and Grumio) complement well-thought out performances by the leads. Chalsma’s Kate is obviously much older than Erika Soto’s Bianca, and that plays very well; you can see how Bianca would be spoiled and how Kate would have been put upon, possibly having to mother her younger sibling, since there’s no mother presented or mentioned on-stage. Chalsma gives Kate a gravitas that is necessary for us to care about her, yet doesn’t fall into the trap of making the character (or any character in a Shakespearean comedy, for that matter) too serious, too reverent.
That lack of reverence is found in other aspects, and are welcome. Petruchio is played by Luis Galindo, with a swagger, but one that we see is more an act than true. His ease taking on the wooing of Kate is balanced by his tardy arrival at the wedding, costumed in such a way as to push the ridiculousness to the edge of wackiness (a Tarzan loincloth under his trousers, later revealed to be a g-string). Grumio (as played by Richard Azurdia) is the most outrageous, the most commedia, acting out Petruchio’s wedding horse, like one of Monty Python’s of Holy Grail. This type of cultural mash-up is seen throughout the play with the addition of modern English asides (“oh, come on”… “really”… and the like), and the wonderful addition of Spanish when Grumio argues with the tailor in Petruchio’s house. I’m not sure if it was a direct translation, but I know it was funny, because there were pockets of pretty uproarious laughter in this Southern California audience.
If it sounds like I liked this, I’m glad, because I did. It was fun and funny right up to the final speech. You know, THAT final speech. The one that gives readers heartburn, feminists fits, and directors headaches. And if that sounds like this is where the production falls apart, nothing could be further from the truth. This is where the production goes from good to great. Chalsma’s delivery of that speech is quite simply the most effective reading I’ve heard of any actresses. Filled with irony and sarcasm (such that it seems that only the audience and Petruchio can hear it), but searing, serious and unbelievable to those couples on-stage, it balances everything that the play’s about: gender politics, physical imposition, and disguising what one is to be what one needs to be for others.
There’s just a couple of weeks left to catch this production… if you’re in the southern California area, do yourself a favor and see The Taming of the Shrew while you can.