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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York

By Drew Pisarra

  Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Edward Hall is a strange director: He interprets Shakespeare's comedies as if they were dramas then mines as much humor as he can from them as if they were just too serious to bear. New York audiences got a chance to see how such an approach can catch fire and backfire when the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented two kindred productions in rep-The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night-by his all-male British company Propeller.

For Shrew, Hall is insisting that the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie version is a false template, that the indomitable Kate isn't submitting to her bullying husband Petrucchio because she's learned the rules of the game (and can now acquiesce with a wink), but that she's an ill-fated upstart destined for a good slap down. Dour more than defiant, this Kate (the puckishly vulnerable Simon Scardifield) starts low only to sink even lower. Petrucchio (an exuberant Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) is certainly playful but he's also unremittingly cruel. By the final scene on Michael Pavelka's set of mirrored cabinets that serve as Victorian clown cars for both plays, she's creepily obedient, a freaked out battered wife who skulks around the stage like a whipped dog. There's nothing amusing about her as a paragon of obedience. You start to wonder... Maybe what we'd been giggling at earlier isn't actually so funny after all.

What makes the downward spiral all the more slippery is Hall's clever way of heightening the play-within-a-play by having the minor character of Christopher Sly double as Petrucchio. He's the servant acting out fantasies of being the master. You couldn't find a more blatant example of wish fulfillment regarding female submission, and when the revelry ends, Sly's realization that it's all been a lark comes as a great disappointment to him even as it's a relief to us. At worst, we're left with a bitter aftertaste. He's left with a bride who won't comply.

You have to admire the followed-through logic that uses an all-male cast to convert Shakespeare's plays into warped male fantasies. That testosterone attack on the scripts is emphasized by Pavelka's costumes which in both productions don't turn the cross-dressing actors into women so much as hairy-chested, short-haired men out to mock the female façade with a vengeance. Kate looks very East Village punk with her tattered black dress in the beginning; her sister Bianca is something akin to a baby doll buffoon. The humor is similarly frat house: Asses are bared; vomit expelled and slipped in; a cowardly suitor pees on himself; drunkenness abounds. Yet all that machismo can come at a cost. For if The Taming of the Shrew here seems like a provocative, misogynist counterpoint to the anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night just gets kind of lost in the muscular revisionism.

The shipwrecked Viola, usually portrayed as a resourceful maiden who charms the pants off her sire despite being decked out as a man, is played by the bland if pretty Tam Williams as a witless intercessor belittled by the man she loves, the woman he loves, and both their servants and hangers-on. Her decision to don men's clothes to save her skin and her virginity isn't really a stroke of brilliance, it's a stroke of luck. And that demotion of her character from wily to trapped turns her into the human equivalent of a badminton birdie. She's a lightweight. Indeed, the only one to have any heft in this revival is Olivia's fool, Feste (Tony Bell in a performance worthy of Beckett). As clowns in Shakespeare go, he's a heavy for while he shares the witty word play, crude humor and irreverence of his peers, he's also completely amoral and unfeeling. And whereas the taunt


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