How do you solve a problem like "The Taming of the Shrew"?
How do you deliver Shakespearean speeches about the taming of a proud woman's spirit now, when a woman's right to speak her mind has never been more admired--unless, of course, she's Hillary Rodham Clinton?
James Dunn's breezy and refreshingly accessible direction of the classic at the Old Globe's outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre careens playfully around most of the red flags. Dunn sets the tale in a saloon in a gunslinging, hard-drinking Wild West, where Kate's tough tongue fits in with the ruthless atmosphere, her smarts enabling her to verbally outshoot the rest.
This version, which Dunn directed in 1973 at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, was a big hit last year at the Denver Center Theatre Company with Mark Harelik as Petruchio.
Harelik stars here, too, and charms shamelessly, putting a self-mocking, Rhett Butler-like spin to Petruchio's bluster. He doesn't bully so much as he admires, fears and ultimately respects Kate. He does not "tame" her feistiness, he rechannels it so they can forge a partnership and fight the world together instead of separately.
Colleen Quinn's Kate takes this idea, examines it quizzically, then plays upon it beautifully. It slowly dawns on Kate that with Petruchio she can have a partner against the perfidy of the world and a lot of fun at the same time. As they work out the steps of their emotional dance, sometimes with and sometimes against the grain of the words, Quinn's Kate seems to genuinely enjoy the doublespeak of her so-called compliance.
Meanwhile, Harelik's Petruchio comes off as not so commanding as internally praying that she cares enough about him to buy into this partnership. In other words, her spirit isn't broken. This Kate is a fellow con artist who gets Petruchio's joke about society's reliance on the crutch of appearances and enjoys using it to their mutual advantage.
The details in this production are also delicious, from each finely crafted performance to Ralph Funicello's lusty western set and Andrew V. Yelusich's costumes, some of which seem to exude the dust of several weeks on the dry cowboy road.
Don Sparks' tall, dark gunslinging Vincentio is a particular hoot, especially when paired with Jack Banning's whiskey salesman as his diminutive imitator also in black, trying to strut like John Wayne.
Some aspects of "The Taming of the Shrew" still make one wince. As per the script, Petruchio does starve Kate and deprive her of sleep in his caveman-like way of winning her. But ultimately, at least in this "Taming," he doesn't defeat her, he joins her, as the gun-toting, wild-whooping finale attests.
* "The Taming of the Shrew," Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 10. $22-$39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 39 minutes.