A Portable Shakespeare: Vagabond Productions’ The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

 

The doors to Room 303 of the Murphy Community Centre opened promptly at 7:00 p.m. with tickets priced at $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for children, which is an amazing bargain for a Shakespearian production, granted it would be good. That rock music played in the interim did not sit very well with me, although a former technical theatre/production design class of mine did stage a Goth production of Hamlet, complete with electric guitars and yes, rock music. At least this group didn’t have the speakers for outdoor rock concerts in a small room. There were barely 100 seats arranged around an empty 10’ x 10’ square space in the center of the room, the seats no more than 3 deep, and the corners wide open.

Ah, theatre in the round. I personally like the intimacy of small theatre spaces as they naturally draw the audience into the play and, I suppose, there’s nothing like the intimacy of arena theatre to involve the audience in a play by Shakespeare. It was an eclectic audience for sure, a good number looking like parents and university professors and the rest being university students and, certainly, family members and friends.

Without so much as a by-your-leave or a dimming of the lights, Lucentio made a smashing entrance, followed by the glib Tranio. It was a brilliant use of doors as entrances and exits, with characters roaming about the room, around the audience and in the central space. They certainly took command of the available space, although the audience was hard pressed to follow some of the movement, especially if it was happening behind them. Still, it was an engaging way to keep the audience awake and involved, considering the language of Shakespeare can sound completely stilted to the untrained ear. Anent to that, the scene changes were seamless as characters entered from one door while others exited through another and it was their voices that drew the audience to turn to see them, much as one actually would turn toward new voices in a three-dimensional real world. The fourth wall was certainly there, and then again it was not. The overall effect was that the audience was more like ghosts within a world of another dimension, silently watching events as they unfolded, sitting in the midst of everything, yet not really being part of it all. In a way, it was surreal and I liked it.

The effect of using the normal lighting of the space with no sets save some empty seats in the audience that were used by the characters in character was effective in making the audience part of every scene. It was most unlike any other Shakespearean production I have witnessed, where minimalism was used to maximise the impact of Shakespeare’s spoken verse, edited as it was. Yet, it was that same minimalism that cut out lines and scenes from the original play that would have caused the play to drag on, although I think the value of a new gown for Kate was lost because we never saw her dragging her wedding dress through the mud and having to wear it day in and day out.

I have to mention that this performance was physical theatre—nay, physical comedy—in a way that Shakespeare must have somehow meant it to be. Bawdy, rowdy, loud and earthy, sans the fancy ways of upper society that transformed Shakespeare’s plays into two-dimensional worlds of unutterable language and twisted speech viewed by powdered wigs in fancy dress from balconies untouched by the riffraff in the orchestra. The amount of unpretentious hitting, dragging, bumping, running, struggling, wrestling and touching between characters was completely unprecedented. But there was no way they could not do it, the audience being in their midst, after all.

To add to the minimalist staging, the actors wore contemporary clothing with token costuming and accessories to accentuate the character or the occasion. Not that it was a problem. The delivery of lines and consistent internalization of character completely overshadowed that fact that the dress did not the language match. And yet, because the action and the actors are so close to the audience, the way they relate to each other as characters has to be convincing, and Hortensio in disguise looked not in others’ eyes, whereas all the other characters maintained eye contact with each other or with the audience.

Besides the fact that one actor could properly pronounce the Italian “Signor” but another could not say “Signora,” Mantua should sound more like Padua than Manchew-a, and Hortensio’s widow should speak a bit louder so that even the audience behind her can hear what she is saying, the deliveries were clear, precise and rhythmic. Someone might have forgotten a line a spent a couple of extra seconds getting it out, but no harm done. What did harm the illusion was someone’s cellphone going off somewhere in the last act.

So yes, I will admit that, once again, I was entertained, and thoroughly. I am the bard’s number one fan, and this rendering hasn’t changed my mind at all about his genius, but it’s genius as well to pull it off without boring the audience. It’s a wonderful play to bring on the road as it’s perfectly portable, extremely affordable and will charm even non-believers. I hope every performance is at least as captivating as this one!

-30-

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