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Review: On Theater: A shrewd ‘Shrew!’ rewrites Shakespeare; rustic charm at the ‘Spitfire Grill’

Actors (back to front) Dylan Bogga, Abraham Arias, Marykate Vadala, Simon Hedrick, Rebecca Jordan, G
Actors, back to front, Dylan Boggan, Abraham Arias, MaryKate Vadala, Simon Hedrick, Rebecca Jordan, Glenda Wright and Adriana Callender perform in “The Spitfire Grill” at Newport Theatre Arts Center through April 29.
(Courtesy of the Newport Theatre Arts Center)

The first thing you notice upon entering South Coast Repertory for the world premiere of Amy Freed’s “Shrew!” is the headless poster for the Quiet Woman restaurant, which will immediately be familiar to Corona del Martians.

But no, Freed’s meticulous reworking of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” isn’t set in the present day, only the prologue in which a nameless, bespectacled writer ponders how to retell this classic tale from a feminine perspective. Once the scene changes, the glasses are off, the Quiet Woman is gone and we’re back in the late 16th century.

Here, things start off pretty much as the Bard intended — a beautiful young lady, Bianca, is courted from three directions, but can’t be married off until her older, infamously shrewish sister, Katherine, finds a mate. And on the scene arrives the proud Petruchio, who vows to wive it wealthily in Padua — even though Cole Porter won’t compose those lyrics for another 400 years.

The dynamic Susannah Rogers (who also plays the modern writer) tears into the vitriolic character of Kate with a vengeance and Petruchio, the lusty Elijah Alexander, performs the toreador duties, eventually tricking the unwilling shrew into matrimony. But on their honeymoon he’s a picture of acquiescence, not dominance, which seems to arouse Kate’s passion.

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Meanwhile, Bianca (a luminous Sierra Jolene) is courted by two young swains (Peter Frechette and Brett Ryback) and an ancient trickster (Mike McShane). In this segment, Shakespeare’s pet plot device, mistaken identities, is employed and proves a mixed blessing.

One of the Bard’s favorite methods of comic relief was the use of clownish figures, and here Freed and director Art Manke have gone somewhat overboard. Danny Scheie and, especially, Bhama Roget, sow impatience in their farcical routines. SCR favorite Colette Kilroy makes a last-scene appearance as a lethal widow, one of two characters hurriedly fashioned to set up the climactic moment.

Modern references, such as a comment on Sylvia Plath, are inserted here and there to remind the audience that this really isn’t Shakespeare but a similarly styled sendup. The contemporary writer reappears (donning her specs) to ensure that she gets Kate’s closing speech just right before she delivers it with heartfelt vigor.

Ralph Funicello’s sweeping scenic design is among the best of the many he’s created at SCR. David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes and Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting are equally impressive, as is Stephen Cahill’s sound plot.

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Freed’s creativity has never been displayed so prominently on the SCR stage. And while she could excise a few segments with impunity, her “Shrew!” is enormously entertaining.

If You Go

What: “Shrew!”

When: Through April 21; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2 p.m. weekend matinees

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $23

Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org

Rustic charm molds Newport’s ‘Spitfire Grill’

While “The Spitfire Grill,” now onstage at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, technically is a musical, it’s more accurately classified as a rustic dramatic comedy with lyrical accompaniment.

This stage adaptation of Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 movie about a troubled young woman finding solace in rural Wisconsin is rich in character development and could stand alone just fine without the James Valcq-Fred Alley score, which often is overly repetitious. The Newport production is beautifully directed by Phyllis Gitlin.

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The central figure, played with appropriately rough edges by Adriana Callender, is Percy (short for Perchance), just released from prison after serving five years for a crime that’s not revealed until the second act. Callender possesses both key requirements for the role — a steely personality and a terrific singing voice.

She’s given a job, reluctantly, at the local diner (the title facility) by its widowed owner, Hannah, a gruff old lady who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. This character is wonderfully interpreted by Glenda Wright, who may not be a superior singer but who sells her part, and her songs, with vigorous intensity.

Simon Hedrick impresses as the town sheriff who’s also Percy’s parole officer and who develops more than a casual interest in his client. Rebecca Jordan sweetens the stage both dramatically and vocally as Shelby, Percy’s fellow diner employee.

Shelby’s prickly husband, Caleb, is effective as a dissenting voice, though he appears a bit young for the role as interpreted by Abraham Arias. MaryKate Vadala nicely swipes her scenes as Effy, the local postmistress and snoop.

A key character is “the visitor,” a mysterious figure who shows up for handouts late each evening. Chances are the audience will guess far in advance as to the identity of the figure, played wordlessly by Dylan Boggan.

Andrew Otero’s indoor-outdoor setting is well fashioned and the fine costumes also are his creation. Brian Page’s sound and Jackson Halphide’s lighting effects likewise figure strongly in the play’s success, as do musical director David Dilorio’s atmospheric melodies.

“The Spitfire Grill” is a fine example of high theatrical drama surfacing in low places. It’s swathed in rustic charm at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

If You Go

What: “The Spitfire Grill”

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When: Till Through April 29; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

Cost: $20

Information: (949) 631-0288 or ntaconline.com

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.


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