Sometimes I wish Shakespeare had written a different version of "The Taming of the Shrew" — one in which the shrew is "tamed" with, say, empathy and affection instead of torture.
These anachronistic fantasies flared up at the Independent Shakespeare Co.'s playful Griffith Park production last weekend. Every time Petruchio (Luis Galindo) discussed his plan to deprive Kate (ISC artistic director Melissa Chalsma) of food and sleep, the younger members of my party would look up from their snack-heaped picnic blanket and hiss, "But why?"
Until somebody turns up a lost draft in a Stratford-upon-Avon attic, though, this "Shrew," equally entertaining and troubling, is the one we've got. And if the ISC offers no fresh answers, the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival is a lovely venue for an introduction to or review of the questions. It's hard to oversell the enchantment of an evening in the natural amphitheater beside the bear cages of the Old Zoo in the company of hundreds of friendly strangers. The community spirit is palpable.
ISC managing director David Melville has staged "Shrew" so lucidly that it's easy to follow the complicated story, in which Lucentio (Sean Pritchett) arrives in Padua, falls for Bianca (Erika Soto) and schemes with his obliging servant, Tranio (André Martin), to marry her — a project that involves swapping identities, outwitting two other suitors and finding a man willing to take on Bianca's "curst" older sister, Kate.
Along the way, Melville seizes every opportunity the text affords for crowd-pleasing ribaldry and high jinks — and then some. Brassieres, bread and legs of lamb fly across the stage. Lucentio and Bianca roller skate together. At one point Petruchio strips down to a Tarzan loincloth, not necessarily an anachronism here, as Jenny Foldenauer's lush costumes situate us in a Padua of the 1930s.
The diverse cast members have strong voices and exhibit an unpretentious eagerness to entertain. Galindo's affability (mid-speech, he blessed a sneezing audience member) does a lot to atone for Petruchio's distasteful shrew-taming approach, although it doesn't hint at much deeper feeling.
Chalsma also starts strong, presenting Kate's ill temper as a rational response to her irritating family and neighbors. She has less to do during the bleak "taming" scenes, where the broadly comedic approach leaves a lot of interpretive opportunities on the table, and her leery expression during the famous submission speech left me uncertain of this production's take on it.
Then again, the hard summer rain that set in soon after intermission may have obscured some nuances. The cast good-naturedly worked the weather into their ad-libs and even into an original song by Melville and Chalsma (who are married to each other and can apparently do everything), sung by Ashley Nguyen as we huddled under our blankets and watched with drenched smiles.