The kind of speed likely experienced at a Nascar race laced with just a tinge of macabre humor. But it’s no easy task. Of course, with the virtuoso stylings of one of NYC’s most unconventional theatre troupes, even the opening was far from usual.
A prone body, presumably presenting an unconscious and not-entirely-sober patron (Edgar Eguia), was precisely what greeted nervous, excited and occasionally alarmed visitors at The Red Room at 85 East 4th Street in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a curiously unusual locale, with a dim crimson caressing its walls as visitors sat on stairs and throw-pillows to create a make-shift three-quarter-thrust stage.
And then a devilishly mischievous patroness would give that fallen form a big ol’ poke from a hearty stick, as the languid grin grew to match the wonder of the audience.
As the fearful fumbler awoke from his intoxicated slumber, he unleashed a scream, and left the room with the grace of hippo and speed of a lion, allowing recorded prologue to begin.
This is precisely what greeted visitors at DMTheatrics’ latest undertaking, “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Never a company to shy away from a challenge — or a potential scandal (these are the guys who staged the sometimes-beloved, sometimes-hated, but always-provocative “Bitch MacBeth”) — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their most recent endeavor happens to be one of the Bard’s most controversial plays, at least to a modern audience.
But a hefty payoff requires a heftier risk, and this one wins the jackpot.
What separates this production from most is the inclusion of the induction, in which a local drunkard named Christopher Sly is tricked by a whimsical aristocrat into believing that he is a lord, and that a play will be performed for his amusement. This effectively presents the central plot of “The Taming of the Shrew” as a play-within-a-play.
As with other examples of this beloved device of Shakespeare, we begin to take the plot less seriously, and the inherent misogyny of the text takes on a different role. This is the precise purpose of the framing device, according to the play’s director, Frank Cwiklik of “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski” fame.
It also allows some of Petrucio’s (Adam Swiderski) darkest and cruelest moments to appear comical. It’s a farce.
A farce that takes place in an undisclosed location in the deep South, complete with Budweiser, KFC chicken and an affinity for Nascar.
And does that affinity ever run strong because this play runs – fast – thanks to the marvelous direction of Cwiklik. Scenes meld together seamlessly and open, wordless moments seem nonexistent, except where they are evidently intended. With clever, innovative utilization of technology, DMTheatrics’ production makes excellent use of everything the space provides. A curtain separating two rooms often creates other worlds, and occasionally serves as a space for projection (including translation subtitles during a particularly side-splitting scene).
And the trick is that everything works — splendidly.
Increasingly highlighting this meticulous marvel are the performers, whose dedication to the scenes and their respective characters add charm to the already intricate production.
Headlining the cast is the titular shrew, Katharina (Brynna Tyson), an appropriately tempestuous terror whose ire was expected; but Tyson’s true test came in her ability to deliver that final monologue, which she nailed with quiet passion, poise and a sense of endearing vulnerability. Her leading man, Swiderski, is equally affable despite many of his most notorious scenes. A naturally charismatic young man, he simply makes them work and brings the comedy. A welcome aversion to a potentially overdone classic comes in the form of Bianca (Lindsey Carter), who ditches the doe-eyed-doll act and instead takes up stock as a manipulative vixen in an ingénue’s clothing. A brilliantly comedic assault reigns supreme within Tranio (Kymberly Tuttle), the now-female guardian of Bianca’s hopeful suitor, Lucentio (Zachary Luke). Tuttle’s pitch-perfect-punchlines and general demeanor create ample warmth and humor, while Luke adds a touch of innocence to a play ruled by ulterior motives. Speaking of comedy, many of the play’s most hilarious moments come courtesy of Grumio (Josh Potter), Petrucio’s right-hand-man. A professional funnyman, Potter takes his stand-up-comic finesse to the stage. A notable mention also goes to Joshua Schwartz as Hortensio, slick a car salesman whose scenes included audience participation, ensuring that the play never had a dull moment.
For better or worse, DMTheatrics’ rendition is certainly not how most would picture Shakespeare – not with kinetic presentation, lightning speed, audience participation and an adaptation to contemporary culture. No, certainly not most.
But perhaps the Bard, himself, whose own productions featured an array of improvisation and audience involvement would have approved.
Sometimes we truly celebrate a spirit in a most unlikely manner. Either way, DMTheatrics gits it done.
Photo courtesy of Frank Cwiklik