By JEFFREY ERIC JENKINS
Whenever Edward Albee was asked what a play of his was about, he would unfailingly answer, "about two hours." Who knew that the Grand Man of American Drama was fond of "Dad jokes"?
Despite Albee's mischievous reply, though, it is a really good question for young directors to ask themselves: What is this play about?
If you cannot describe it in 10 words or less, you may not have a handle on the material.
Albee's quip came to mind during the opening night performance of Laura Alcantara's production of "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Station Theatre in Urbana. The Celebration Company signals that the production will be different from your grandparents' "Shrew" on its poster, which reads "by William Shakespeare . . . (kind of)."
In this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, staging Shakespeare's famous play about the "war between the sexes" can be artistically risky. "Shrew" has been a challenge in recent decades as theater people tend to be more progressive and avoid retrograde attitudes about gender dynamics.
For many observers, the relationship between Kate and the world at large, never mind her incipient struggle with Petruchio, is an abusive one in which an intelligent, spirited woman is treated as chattel to be transferred from the home of one man to another. Why is it so important that Kate be moved from her father's house? So that her more pliable younger sister, object of the affection of lechers and swains alike, might be available for a similar bargain.
From the earliest moments of the current production, it is clear that a pastiche approach has been taken in design and execution of the director's ideas about "Shrew." Everything is fodder for a quick laugh, many of which, especially in the early moments, are visual.
An odd, clashing design aesthetic keeps the audience at arm's length as we struggle to locate the play's place and time. The program, you may note, sets the play "then, or maybe now." What would someone who has no experience of "Shrew" or its Broadway musical version, "Kiss Me, Kate," understand about the play from this production?
Shakespeare's play has been reshaped, eliminating text that does not get right to the intergender battles, making the Station's production appear as a "greatest hits" version. "Shrew" often runs two and a half to three hours, depending on whether the induction scenes at the beginning are included. Alcantara's production clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes, which includes a 15-minute intermission. (And if transitions between scenes were more smoothly handled, the production could easily shave another five minutes.)
The result is an impressionistic production that gives short shrift to the complex journeys of the characters. Mindy Smith and Mathew Green are well matched as Kate and Petruchio, circling each other like flirtatious predators as they engage in witty banter. But the textual elisions throughout the performance seem to make choppy their development as human beings.
Lincoln Machula gives a reliably humorous portrait of Baptista, the rich father who wants his daughters out of the house. Matt Hester's Gremio, who looks like a gilded refugee from "The Sopranos," amuses with his lecherous antics.
"The Taming of the Shrew" has firmly moved into the "problem play" category for Shakespeare, given its troubling gender politics. Director Alcantara and company have focused on the humor and fun embedded in the play. It will be interesting to see what she does next.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Theatergoers can enjoy dessert and champagne along with "The Taming of the Shrew." This benefit performance supports The Celebration Company at Station Theatre. Tickets are $50 for the 7:30 pm performance June 15. Reservations may be made at 800-838-3006 or online via stationtheatre.com.
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana.