Propeller troupe offers an expert 'Taming of the Shrew'
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Watching Propeller perform offers a rare window into the genius of Shakespeare as it initially must have burst into the world.
This arises from a combination of things: the troupe's all-male makeup, as was the custom (way) back in the day; its full embrace of Shakespeare's language, rightly confident that the audience will be able to keep up; and, in the production of "The Taming of the Shrew" currently at the Power Center, its use of just enough modern touches to be inventive but not intrusive.
The University Musical Society has brought Propeller back to Ann Arbor this year for "Twelfth Night" as well as "Taming." And while the group's production of "Twelfth Night" may have some dark overtones, the darkness sits right in the center of the sometimes difficult and troubling "Taming."
Propeller's version of "Taming" is expertly done in every respect. Every single member of the company does an excellent job communicating; they don't just recite the dialogue; they fully inhabit it, bringing the audience along with them.
They're all terrific, but special acclaim goes to star Vince Leigh, doing amazing work in the dual roles of Petruchio, the man who vows to marry the "shrew" Katherine (Dan Wheeler) and "tame" her; and Christopher Sly, the drunkard in a frame story for whose amusement the bulk of the play is performed. Supporting player John Dougall deserves a particular hat-tip too, wringing every possible laugh out of the somewhat stock old-man character Gremio, the most foolish of the suitors for Katherine's mellower younger sister, Bianca (Arthur Wilson). (Wheeler and Wilson are great in what must be the very challenging situation of men playing women.)
The set by Michael Pavelka is simple but effective, making good use of large moving cabinets for buildings and whatnot. That's all that's needed. Costumes are offbeat enough to bring smiles without distracting. (Well, except for one point where ... ah, I'm not going to spoil it.) Direction, by Edward Hall, is energetic and briskly paced.
The only thing that keeps the play from being a thoroughly enjoyable experience, unsurprisingly, is the text itself. There's plenty of great comedy on hand. But Petruchio's "taming" of Katherine remains disturbing, cruel and abusive—and the results are downright depressing.
Propeller wisely includes in this production the sometimes-omitted "induction," or frame story, with Sly, which makes it clear that what follows isn't "real." And the troupe adds a brief coda that underlines this, and somewhat redeems the play's misogynistic elements.
But those elements are undeniably present. And, of course, the question of whether Shakespeare intended to condone them has become a debate for the ages. (Personally, I'm afraid he did, but I'd love to know your thoughts in the comments below.)
So while parts of "Taming" are hard to watch, Propeller's production offers an invaluable immersion in an important and often very funny play. We're fortunate that they're here.
"The Taming of the Shrew" continues Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit the UMS website.