Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Return of the Shrew

Friday night I had the pleasure of attending an original theatrical production, The Return of the Shrew, written, directed by and co-starring one of San Antonio’s best kept secrets, John Poole.

I first became aware of Poole many years ago when he was part of the local improv group, the Oxy-Morons. He exhibited a unique edge, laced with a type of manic behavior that made one wonder if he might spontaneously combust in the midst of any given performance. Poole could always be counted on to deliver the most unexpected improv material.

By no means am I an expert on local theater, but I do wonder why John Poole is not in greater demand by the community. Perhaps it has something to do with my ongoing theory about talent that “makes it look easy” rarely receives proper respect and recognition.

John and his wife Laurie Dietrich (along with a host of other hard-working people) eventually founded The Shoestring Shakespeare Company, which over the years has staged all manner of Bard-like productions in S.A. This is no mean feat, mind you, in a city where most theatergoers tend to be the audience in the pit – myself included. (Titus is my favorite Shakespeare movie, if that tells you anything.)

The Return of the Shrew is, as its title implies, a sequel to The Taming (although not the first I’ve discovered). It’s a frenzied, bawdy romp and I suspect if Will were around today he’d give it a wax seal of approval. The plot isn’t terribly complex, nor does it need to be. It does, however, need to be true to its source material, which I believe it is; The Dukes of Hazzard movie this mercifully is not.

Set a month after the events of a story written some 400 years ago, the characters have all been largely screwed up by what went down at that time, and most notably by Katherina’s monologue from the finale which, as Poole explains in the theatre program, details “a woman’s duty to her lord and husband, whose true meaning is still debated.” To go into too much detail might ruin the show’s pleasures, but suffice it to say, some characters believe that Kate’s “shrew” has merely gone into hiding, and under the proper circumstances, could easily be resurrected and thus life will return to “normal” for these people. Duplicitous schemes, wicked behavior and a fair amount of Python-esque cross-dressing ensue.

If that sounds too complicated, J.T. Street put it far more eloquently and succinctly: This is a play for people who enjoy watching other people getting beat with foam swords. See it and you too will realize actors smacking the crap out of each other with foam swords is an immense amount of fun. Like I said, I view this sort of thing from the pit, and clearly so does J.T.

The play alternates between spoofy faux-Shakespearian dialogue and modern speech. The two coagulate in an imperceptible fashion, as John the writer has an instinct for hitting the right beats in the right places. I was frequently reminded of Blackadder, which may be the highest form of praise I could give the material. In my mind’s eye I could see this play performed by Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson and the rest of those lunatics.

Which is not to imply the cast isn’t up to par, because each does a fine, distinct job. Singling out Martha Dickman’s Bianca exhibits bias, since Martha is one of the stars of Ravenswan, but I’ll do it anyway because 1) Martha, like John Poole, is a hugely underrated talent in this city, 2) she’s an absolute scream in the role, and 3) it alleviates the task of singling anyone else out. Working as a unit, the cast gels & sells the script, and perhaps more importantly, these people have huge amounts of fun. And when actors have fun, so does the audience.

Kudos to Barbara Zuniga’s costume design as well. Like the play, it's a meshing of the past and present – spiked heels and corsets, codpieces and denim. And then there’s the paint! Bianca, for instance, has the word SPOILED emblazoned across her ass. The costuming provides quick information about the characters, like little comic book panels dancing across the stage.

Go see The Return of the Shrew – you’ve got two more weekends to do so. Have a couple beers or a few glasses of wine. Laugh ‘til you begin to annoy the actors. Shrew is presented as theatre-in-the-round. The Cameo has two different areas from where the play may be seen: an upper level, which puts you at eye level with the actors, but keeps viewers at a distance...or the pit, which surrounds the actors & the stage and immerses you in the action.

I viewed Act I from the upper level and Act II from the pit and the difference was night and day. Embrace your inner-S.A. theatergoer and see it from the pit.

Run Dates: May 5, 2006 thru May 27, 2006
Times: Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 pm. Saturday matinees on May 20 and May 27 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15 General, $12 Military, Senior, SATCO, Groups, $10 Students, $8 - Student Groups of 15+
Phone: (210) 472-2636

For more info, check The Cameo Center website.

And speaking of Blackadder & Shakespeare, here's a rarely seen sketch, that even I - who am obsessed with all things Adder - hadn't seen until recently. Methinks John Poole would get a kick out of it...