LOS ANGELES - "Hark! What light breaks through yonder canyon?" Why, it's another repertory season of revels and revelations at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, made glorious by these sons and daughters of Geer.
No summer in Los Angeles is complete without a sojourn to the Theatricum stage. There's nothing quite like seeing Shakespeare under the stars in that rustic amphitheatre nestled in Topanga Canyon. Never ones to shrink from controversy, the Theatricum has launched its 40th anniversary season with one of the Bard's most contentious plays, The Taming of the Shrew.
The mise-en-scène (which creatively makes use of the natural surroundings), the music, the Renaissance period costumes, and the acting are up this equity house's usual high standards. As Grumio, the sly cross-dressing Melora Marshall humorously plays yet another male character. Raven-haired Willow Geer, who has appeared in many a Bard play and is arguably one of L.A.'s finest theater actresses, is superb as the fiery, strong-willed (and sexy) Katharina. Willow can heave her bosom with the best of them, and coming up against this force of nature is another Theatricum veteran, Aaron Hendry, as Petruchio, who seeks to woo, wed, and domesticate this fireball.
The troupe's venerable artistic director, Ellen Geer, presides over the organized mayhem of this naughty comedy with her usual astute aplomb. A Shakespearean expert, Ms. Geer observes that there are "many points of view" about Shrew. One is that in this play about the eternal war between the sexes, Petruchio subdues and subjugates Katharina to his will. Backstage, after the show, Hendry told this critic that Petruchio could be considered a "misogynist."
Playing up the work's farcical aspects, the production uses a small orchestra, mainly a slide whistle, to provide sound effects intended to convey comical intent and soften the blows of a debatably patriarchal folio. To my ears these FX couldn't distract from what may have been the playwright's male chauvinist intent: Katharina's submission to Petruchio's grim whims.
But Katharina, the "shrew-ish" title character, is an acid-tongued, temperamental woman used to having and getting her way in Padua. So perhaps she is a proto-feminist, free-spirited and determined to live life on her own terms. However, she is coerced against her will to enter into an arranged marriage on very short notice. Petruchio is no gentleman from Verona, and after marrying Kate, literally uses Guantánamo-type "enhanced interrogation" methods to break her spirit, including sleep and food deprivation.
To be fair to the production, Hendry does convey the sense that Petruchio is genuinely smitten with Katharina. When they lip-lock, we can sense that both characters feel a libidinal thrill. (And for the record I did not feel that Hendry's petulant Petruchio suffered from misogyny.)
At one point Kate shrieks that she wants to be "free!!!" Consider these wonderful lines Shakespeare gave Katharina:
"My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words."
And in terms that Susan B. Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem might applaud, Katharina muses:
"I see a woman may be made a fool,
If she had not a spirit to resist."
Hear, hear the voice of women throughout the ages struggling for their rights, to be treated as equals, not chattel!
The subjugation of human beings is never a laughing matter to be taken lightly - although there are those who argue that Kate bests her loutish husband by using submissiveness as a ruse to (as ever) get her own way. Some of this tale of domination is frankly disturbing to my egalitarian, anarchistic sensibility. But the Theatricum production serves us well to evaluate this classic, troubling text.
The Taming of the Shrew is performed in repertory through Sept. 29 along with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family, Merlin by Ellen Geer, and Tone Clusters by Joyce Carol Oates, at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.
Photo: Ian Flanders