by Hugh Hunter
Old Academy Players in East Falls last weekend opened its 90th season with Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” an uproariously funny comedy written in 1590 but which still has something to say to audiences 422 years later.
Shakespeare productions have become a target for all sorts of politically correct intrusions, but under the direction of Carla Childs, this show is largely respectful; she captures the humor and allows themes to emerge unburdened by contemporary editorial comments.
Some story background: Set in Renaissance Padua, wealthy patriarch Baptista refuses to allow suitors to woo his favorite daughter, Bianca, until he can find a match for his oldest daughter, Kate. But Kate is a renowned shrew whom all suitors avoid.
Julia Wise is phenomenally good as Kate who delivers her lines with force and nuance. Enter “hero” Petruchio, who offers to fix the problem. Played by Timothy Kirk with unwavering audacity, Petruchio’s only goal in life is “to wive wealthily,” and he proceeds to “woo” Kate with brute force, wit and cunning.
The ensuing battle is one of the great triumphs of comic theater. While characters like Grumio (Ken Wilson) and Biondello (Caitlyn Shaffstall) are comic relief figures, the show brings out the humor that lurks inside the play’s many subplots.
You chuckle over the hapless doddering of Baptista (John Cannon) and Gremio (Joseph Carney), the preciousness of Bianca (Skye Pagon) and the haughty romanticism of her swain Lucentio (Caleb Wimble), the whining of suitor Hortensio (Isaiah Price) and the delight Tranio (Juan Caceres) takes in being a rascal.
It is a lot of play to handle, and director Childs pushes it along at a good pace. The scene changes between Petruchio’s home in Verona and the Baptista household in Padua are swiftly managed with a few simple changes to props and lighting.
While Kate deeply resents her socially imposed role as maiden-in-waiting, she has lots of company. High-born men masquerade as tutors; servants become lords, and everyone seems to be in comical, unspoken rebellion against roles they are forced to take on.
But in the final scene those clothes come off, and everyone accepts their duties. Except for Kate! She transforms the imposed role of obedient wife into a new way of taking over, as she clearly shows in her deliciously ironic “submission” speech.
“Now there’s a wench,” cries out Petruchio, and by the end Kate and Petruchio are joined at the hip in a tacit devil’s bargain. You know their marriage will endure. You just hope and pray they don’t move in next door.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “The Taming of the Shrew” will run through Sept. 30. Reservations at 215-843-1109.