On Sunday afternoon on the lawn of the South Shore Cultural Center, some 700 people showed up for a remarkable new initiative: a Shakespearean production from a first-class company designed to remove two of the most formidable barriers to unleashing the Bard on all Chicagoans.
The first of those obstacles is money, so the show is free (that's mostly thanks to the Boeing Corp., the major sponsor). The second obstacle is place, so Chicago Shakespeare Theater is taking the show to the neighborhoods, staging this 75-minute version of "The Taming of the Shrew" in verdant Chicago Park Districts parks everywhere from Tuley to Humboldt, Dvorak to Ridge, Frank J. Wilson to Welles. And it's quite an impressive set up — the mobile theater, which unfolds from a vehicle, features an Italianate setting from Kevin Depinet replete with backdrops, a fountain and interior lights. There's a full costume design from Jacqueline Firkins and an original score from Kevin O'Donnell. It's simple enough to evoke the desired sense of an afternoon in the park in the company of traveling players, but big enough to attract attention and let people know that they're not watching a bunch of ragtag thespians but a project by one of the leading classical companies in the country.
All in all, it's about as cool as idea as you can imagine. I just wish more thought had gone into the actual production.
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In essence, this pilot project is a re-staging of director Rachel Rockwell's "Short Shakespeare!" production of "Shrew," as performed mostly for school groups on Navy Pier earlier this year. The notion of doing Shakespeare in 75 minutes is perfectly sound — it's long enough for this kind of green-grass setting, where most people are on blankets or folding chairs, and the environment is designed to be only semi-controlled, allowing folks to come and go and generally not be subject to the same kind of rules as indoors.
But, of all Shakespeare's plays, "Shrew" is one of the trickiest to present in heavily abbreviated form, not because the plot is too complex (it's not at all) but because the sexual politics of the piece are so darn tricky. And when you're taking a show out to many young people, especially girls, you really have to be careful what you are saying.
"Shrew" can be staged in a number of ways to soften its apparent sexism: Petruchio and Kate can have a strong love connection, which makes the play a meditation on relationships. Kate and Petruchio can be subversives or ironists (or both at once), which makes it a satire. You can keep the prologue, which makes it a stupid guy's fantasy. Or, as in David H. Bell's excellent, separate short "Shrew" for this very company in 2007 starring Molly Glynn, you can leave the show lamenting a society that produced such a brilliant, vibrant woman and still made her subject to these tiresome games of possession and control.
But you have to come with a strong idea.
For when you stick a short "Shrew" outdoors in a park, the danger is that the whole thing comes off as a kind of routine farce, and so it does here. The piece is well spoken and the actors are capable players. (Ericka Ratcliff is Katharina and Matt Mueller is Petruchio with Joseph Miller as Baptista.) There are some amusements from the likes of Matthew Sherbach, who plays Hortensio, and Jose Antonio Garcia, who plays Grumio. But from my spot on the grass, I couldn't read much of a spark between the leading pair of lovers. Mueller comes off as a standard-issue leading man, although Petruchio invariably benefits either from strong comic chops or a few chinks of vulnerability. The notorious last speech, where Kate tells her peers that serving your lord and master ain't so bad when you're in love, is delivered, albeit with linguistic flourish, without much apparent thought for how it reads out in the field. And in the equally famous scene where Kate appears, ragged from ill-treatment, there is just not so much that's funny.
The concept is a strange hybrid of a most traditional design with a very contemporary score from O'Donnell that's amped up for outdoors and thus pulls all kinds of attention when it plays, which seems random. The soundtrack kind of rattles a few ears and then just as suddenly disappears, when, ideally, it would be part of a more cohesive whole, rather than functioning not so differently from the bell on an ice-cream truck. There's a stagy, abrasive quality to much of the humor in the show, which is inevitable and, in moderation, perfectly fine. But context is everything. And even outdoors, for free, a theatrical production has to believe what it's saying.
'The Taming of the Shrew': Shakespeare in the Parks continues 4 p.m. Tuesday in Dvorak Park, 1119 W. Cullerton St.; 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St.; and 6:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday in Humboldt Park, 1440 N. Sacramento Ave. Free, more information at chicagoshakes.com