A "Taming of the Shrew" unlike any you have ever seen before
Most of the Voices Found Repertory actors had only a nodding acquaintance with the unique sound of Shakespeare's language, the sight gags ranged from really risque bumping and grinding to pratfalls and a character who raised more questions than he answered and the entire budget for scenery was $65.
Add to all of that the fact that it was "The Taming of the Shrew" on display at a basement theater under the all but deserted Shops of Grand Avenue and it almost sounds like you have a recipe for a disastrous night of theater.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the final curtain.
The audience, in large measure family and friends, really enjoyed the production. I mean people smiled and laughed, and I was one of those people.
The production was effort No. 3 from Voices Found, a company of young artists who are committed, apparently, to exploring the Shakespeare canon with an eye that might best be described as populist and experimental. They've staged Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus and next on tap is "Richard III." And if "Shrew" is an example, they operate under "let's try this and if it doesn't work we'll try something else" philosophy.
"Shrew," written almost 450 years ago, is comedy and controversy wrapped into one. Over the decades the controversy has grown about the treatment of the shrew, Katharina (Kate) and, by extension, all wives who may not kowtow to the wishes of their husbands. It's not a feminist favorite.
Under the smart and seemingly casual direction of Sam Robinson, this production steers clear of anything serious and plays the whole thing for laughs. There has been judicious editing of the script but they didn't try to rewrite the language, something you see frequently with young companies that think they are hip.
Shakespeare's language is difficult to master and this cast, with a couple of exceptions, was lost at sea in the waves of words and rhythms that make up Shakespeare's works. If the audience had to depend on clarity of dialogue to understand the story it would have been a wasted evening. Nick Wise and Nick Hurtgen seemed to have the most skill in using the language effectively and there were a couple of others who were close. But for many of them the rhythm of Shakespeare remains a mystery.
But facility with the language hardly mattered. When Petruchio came dressed for his wedding to Kate as a Chippendale dancer complete with elbow length black opra gloves and when Hortensio kept a plate of snacks away from the starving Kate while she chased him throughout the theater and he shared those snacks with audience members, it didn't really bother anyone who couldn't quite catch the language.
When theater companies take a Shakespeare play and change it around to their liking there is a hope that they make the changes because they can, not because they have to. I would hope that Voices Found would put in the work to develop skills in using the language, telling the story, so that they can then move into whatever realm they choose.
"Shrew" is a funny play. If they had been skilled with the language, there would have been a lot of humor on display. As it was, the humor came from directorial choices rather than the script.
Some of it went too far. A character played by Jake Russell Thompson was so distracting that I was almost repelled whenever he was on the stage. He made choices about this character that seemed to have no basis in reality and I kept wondering why he was moving and acting the way he was. What was the growling and the skewed posture?
Having said that, and hoping that my suggestions are taken in the spirit in which they are intended, it's important to note the birth of a new company in the Milwaukee theater firmament.
These kids, with a profound UWM theater program membership roster among the ranks, are obviously willing to take chances and to produce meaningful plays on an absolute shoestring. And they have strengths, not the least of which is the presence of Haley Haupt, the actor who played Katharina.
She's got a ways to go, but she stood out with the kind of magnetic sparkle that you can't teach. She has a presence about her that will carry her through a wide variety of roles and we should all look forward to following her development.
Voices Found Rep is relying on a GoFundMe drive to keep their heads above water, pay their rent and keep producing plays.
In a speech after the production, Robinson mentioned that all contributions would be gratefully received.
"Our entire scenery budget for this play was $65," he said. "Just think. You could double that."
I'd be willing to do that, just to keep encouraging this company to keep thinking big and small, all at the same time.
"The Taming of the Shrew" runs through Jan. 22 an information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
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