Live performance is back thanks to Ten Bucks Theatre Company and the Bard. And what a joy it was to sit on the hillside in Indian Trail Park in Brewer and see William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” delightfully unfold.
This is the best Shakespeare Under the Stars production the company has launched since its outstanding production of the “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in 2017. “Shrew” was the first Shakespeare play Ten Bucks performed when it began the outdoors series in 2004 and fans of the company last year said they wanted to see it again as the company marked its 20th anniversary.
No doubt, a very different production full of pushing, shoving, biting, hair pulling, spitting and fisticuffs was planned before coronavirus social distancing measures were imposed in March. The fact that the actors must stay 6 feet away from each other takes some of the bitter edge off a tale that has been criticized for being a domestic violence farce.
Set in Padua, Italy, the play tells the story of a wealthy father, Baptista (Joe Fisher), with two daughters, Katharina (Aimee Gerow) and Bianca (Natalie Lisnet). He vows that no man may marry the much sought-after younger girl, a beauty with a sweet disposition, until the elder sister, called a shrew behind her back, has wed. Enter Petruchio (Nathan Roach), a swaggering, witty fellow from Verona who’s come to Padua with his servant Grumio (Tyler Costigan) seeking a wife with a hefty dowry.
Bianca’s other suitors (Holly Schrieber and Jennifer Guare) urge Petruchio to woo “Kate the Curst” so that one of them may charm the younger sister. Baptista agrees to allow Katharina to marry Petruchio and promises to bestow on him a small fortune if he can tame her.
By today’s standards, Petruchio is an abusive brute of a husband and the strong-willed Kate’s submission in the final scene does not sound like an act of love but one of survival. After all, he denies his wife her wedding reception, food, sleep and new clothes essentially to win a bet that he can force her to be a docile, obedient spouse.
Under the direction of Amy Roeder, Petruchio and Kate’s verbal sparring looks and feels more like seduction than domination. Because they don’t kiss or touch, let alone punch each other, Roeder keeps the focus on the language rather than their actions and she emphasizes its playfulness. Kate submits to her husband but she does it with a wink and nod, the same way he accepts it.
Roach and Gerow are perfectly matched in their roles. Their bickering turns to banter as Petruchio and Kate negotiate their relationship and woo each other with barbs instead of couplets.
Roach initially downplays Petruchio’s true character but once he swaggers toward his wedding vows in a garishly inappropriate outfit, the braggart’s real self emerges. The actor embraces Petruchio’s inner clown, strutting up and down the park’s natural slope, charming each and every audience member.
Gerow’s Kate is fiery but never a wench, as others have played her. The actress expertly rails against the constraints placed on women during the Renaissance. She unfurls Kate’s transformation slowly but never lets go of the woman’s sharp intellect or her determination to remain as independent as possible in her partnership with Petruchio.
Once again, Costigan proves that he is one of the most talented and versatile actors working in Greater Bangor. As Petruchio’s servant Grumio, he is an energetic force who never stands still because he must be ready to respond to his master’s every whim.
Costigan, who was Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple” in January and Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” the previous winter, mines the depths of every character he plays and always brings up diamonds. He sparkles again in this supporting role.
The rest of the cast mostly shines with Robert Brangwynne as a standout as Lucentio, the rich man disguised as a tutor who captures Bianca’s heart and hand. Despite, or perhaps because of, the social distancing requirements, the cast creates a tight ensemble rare in any era.
The set, mostly pale gray, and the costumes, black and white, are bare-boned. That palette allows the colorful clothes worn by Petruchio and Kate to stand out and signals that they are the people worth watching.
Ten Bucks Theatre Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary by showing that live performance is possible during a pandemic. For that alone, the troupe has earned a long round of applause and a standing ovation.
“The Taming of the Shrew” will be performed Thursday and Friday at Indian Trail Park in Brewer, Saturday and Sunday at Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town and at Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect, July 30-Aug. 2. Performances are at 6 p.m., and rain cancellations are announced on Facebook at 1 p.m. the day of the show.
Tickets, which are $15, can only be purchased online, and there will be no paper programs. Socially distant seating will be arranged by ushers, and the show will be performed without an intermission to prevent lines from forming at the bathroom. Audiences must bring their own blankets or chairs and food and drink, as there will be no food vendors at the performances. Masks must be worn when entering and exiting the venue, though they do not need to be worn during the performance. A full list of safety guidelines and tickets can be found on the Ten Bucks website.