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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Taming Of The Shrew
American Conservatory Theater and PBS 1976    YouTube Autumn 2021

High in energy, rich in invention and just a whole lot of fun, this is probably the most enjoyable production of The Taming Of The Shrew of, indeed, any Shakespeare play that you are ever likely to see.

Staged by San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and broadcast by US Public Television in 1976, it is available again on YouTube, and I urge you to treat yourself to it.

Director William Ball took Italian commedia dell'arte as his inspiration, with its type characters, highly stylised presentational mode and broad physical farce, but then added in elements of circus clowning and burlesque gagging.

No one speaks naturally to anyone else when he can speechify to the audience, no one walks across the stage when he can march in choreographed style to music or sound effects.

Every joke is underlined and punctuated by some effect, every double-take tripled, every slap, nudge or pratfall (and there are many of each) exaggerated. No gag is allowed to go by once when it can be repeated, preferably with an inventive variation or two (or four).

I grant that this unrelenting barrage might be overpowering at first. But if it is, I urge you to stick with it, because within minutes you'll find yourself on their wavelength and responding happily to it all.

In the midst of this stride Marc Singer, bare of chest and padded of codpiece, as Petruchio, and Fredi Olster, all flashing eyes and heaving bosom, as Katherine.

She makes it clear from the first that her character is the smartest person in town, with justified contempt for all around her, while he keeps slipping into an endearingly goofy grin of happiness at just being himself that sometimes makes him resemble a young Jim Carrey.

Their meeting and wooing is a tightly choreographed mix of energetic ballet, stage fighting, clowning and WWE style wrestling, all without missing a beat or a word of the text. (At least part of the reason they fall in love, you suspect, is that both are so beautiful, and part because they admire each other's stamina.)

But it is not all roustabout farce. Director and actors find several unexpected moments for the two characters to discover real feelings for each other, and to be momentarily startled and shaken by the discovery. So we have the very pleasant experience of watching them not only fall in love but uncover unexpected emotional depths in themselves.

The commedia style gives few in the rest of the cast an opportunity to make much impression. Indeed, their very valuable contribution is to maintain the performance mode and thus the invented reality of the production without any lapse.

Like any other modern director, William Ball is stuck with the problem of the ending and Kate's taming. His solution to suggest (as Olster does very well) that she is using her intelligence to get what she wants from Petruchio doesn't quite work, but we are happy to let it go by in our general enjoyment of the whole thing.

And the whole thing is very enjoyable.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Taming Of The Shrew - ACT 1976 - 2021
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