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Magic fills the air this summer in Camden. Some of it is captivatingly charming, but its dark side, full of malevolence and revenge, also wafts around town.
That’s because the Camden Shakespeare Festival is performing “The Taming of the Shrew,” a comedy, and “Hamlet,” a tragedy, in repertoire a few blocks apart. Both are fine productions, but the comedy, performed outside the town’s library in its amphitheatre overlooking the harbor, is the better executed and more accessible show.
It is the story of Baptista, the father of two daughters, and how many men seek to marry one of them. The younger, Bianca, is beautiful and charming. Kate, the elder, is the “shrew.” A husband for Kate must be found before Bianca may decide which suitor suits her best.
Director Dana Legawiec chose a circus theme for the costumes and the setting that works beautifully in the amphitheatre. The show begins and ends with the alternative punk band Gogol Bordello’s song ” Start Wearing Purple.” It sets the tone for the productions’ frantic pace, broad comedy and silliness.
The energetic engine that helps drive this “Shrew” is Alexander MacAlpine’s performance as Petruchio. He brings to the role bluster and bravado that spills out of the amphitheatre and into the harbor.
The actor also shows that under all of that is a man capable of deep love and passion whose attempts to tame Kate are more about wooing a wife than subjugating her to his will. MacAlpine’s Petruchio also is a glorious jester in his own home with inept servants who provide many of the pratfalls.
Olivia Lodge plays Kate as a willful spitfire nearly incapable of caring about anyone but herself. She is as adept as MacAlpine at the couple’s sparing wit but how she plays the ending is troublesome.
In the play’s finale, Kate is to bend to her husband’s will and upbraid her sister and another bride for disobeying their husbands. This is a difficult scene to pull off in the #metoo age.
MacAlpine plays it with an invisible wink and a nod to the audience — Petruchio is just showing off. Lodge plays the scene as if she’s not in on the joke, and Kate’s fire has all but been extinguished. Her portrayal made the ending feel awkward compared to all that had come before, but that most likely is the author’s fault.
Emily Solo’s Bianca has a giggle that never fails to infect the audience. The way she toys with her admirers’ affections will look familiar to any woman in the audience who watched, but never was, the popular girl in school.
As the put-upon father Baptista, Joseph Cote is wonderful. He juggles with acuity the role of loving father with that of a businessman negotiating dowries for his daughters.
The actors in “Shrew” makes some fascinating transformations to become the characters in “Hamlet.” Thomas Daniels’ portrayal of Petruchio’s loyal but inept servant gives the audience no hint that he is capable of becoming the tortured Prince of Denmark, but the actor gives a devastating performance. As the young college student who returns home to find his father dead and his mother married to his uncle, Daniels exudes an energy of inaction.
He rushes on and off the stage in the parish hall at St. Thomas’ Episcoapal Church as if pursued by demons. Daniels’ Hamlet is in a constant frenzy but can’t quite bring himself to exact revenge. It is a stunning and mesmerizing performance that drives the production much as MacAlpine’s does in the comedy.
Solo’s Ophelia bears no resemblance to the sunny Bianca. Her Ophelia is constantly on the brink of madness until her father’s death pushes her soul into darkness. MacAlpine as Ophelia’s brother Laertes also sheds Petruchio’s skin and becomes a wronged warrior who has more in common with Hamlet than he can acknowledge.
Although this “Hamlet” was marketed as having a film noir look, the production feels more like the Third Reich. The flags unfurled are red with white circles that have three black triangles pointing down in their centers. The men’s costumes are military with knee-length black boots that bring to mind Nazi Germany.
Theatergoers may find director Stephen Legawiec’s vision a bit unclear but well executed. Hamlet’s revenge is clearly personal, not political, as the costumes and set seem to imply, but none of that detracts from Daniels’ tour-de-force performance.
The Camden Shakespeare Festival believes that Shakespeare’s plays “speak to everyone, because of their universal themes, their unforgettable characters and their extraordinary poetry,” according to its website.
The company this summer fulfills that mission exquisitely with “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Hamlet.”
The plays will be performed in repertoire through Aug. 11 at the Camden Amphitheatre, 55 Main St., and at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, 33 Chestnut St., in Camden. For more information, visit camdenshakespeare.org or call 207-464-0008.