Shakespeare's script begins with a brief induction involving the mishaps of a beggar named Christopher Sly. This weekend's production stayed true to the script, but took a few liberties by bringing Sly directly to St. Olaf. The drunken Sly (Jake Mahler '07) began the production arguing with another cast member in the aisles of the theater, taking time to harass several audience members. Eventually, the beggar made his way to the stage, where he passed out before a large white backdrop. The other actors soon tricked Sly into believing he was a wealthy St. Olaf student and invited him to attend a play. Sly agreed, and stumbled around the stage for a few moments before crashing through the backdrop, revealing the scenery and allowing the show to begin.
The play is a story of love and courtship. Its varied characters emerged on stage dressed in 1950s garb and riding bikes instead of horses, many of them pursuing Bianca (Natalie Neal '10), the lovely daughter of the wealthy Baptista (Nick Sahli 07). Three of these suitors the young Lucentio (David Rysdahl '09), the wealthy Hortensio (Josh Vogen '07) and the elderly Gremio (Kevin Meyer '08) captured the imagination with utterly believable characterizations and well-acted humor.
As the story developed, the actors continued to nail their parts almost impeccably. By decree of Baptista, Bianca cannot marry until her older sister, the somewhat unpleasant Katherine (Angela Gulner '09), is married. Dismayed by the news, the three suitors concocted various schemes by which to secretly woo Bianca until the clever Petruchio (also played by Mahler) arrived in the city, seeking to tame Katherine as well as obtain her fortune.
The resulting struggle between Petruchio and Katherine, as well as the antics of the three love-struck suitors, left the audience laughing almost continuously. The humor, however, was mixed with a much more serious tone. Even just after laughing hysterically as Gremio pleaded vainly for Biancas hand in marriage, the audience was moved in sympathy as Baptista rejected his offer in favor of Lucentio.
The ultimate message, however, centered on the near-tragic portrayal of Katherine, whose behavior naturally lent her character to comedy. Gulner capitalized on this throughout the show, from throwing oranges at Biancas suitors to struggling with the relentless Petruchio. After the wedding, however, Petruchios taming soon took its toll, and the audience was forced to witness a different Katherine, sleep deprived, hungry and broken. As Petruchio raged on stage mildly against Katherine, wildly against tailors and servants a disconcerted quiet fell over the audience in response to the very real violence.
The play reached its climax shortly after Bianca was wedded to Lucentio. At Petruchio's bidding, Katherine began a long speech reprimanding women for displeasing their husbands. Often, this final speech is produced in a manner that portrays either a very sarcastic or a very tame Katherine. Gulner and the other members of the cast, however, molded the final lines of the comedy in such a way that an air of tragedy pervaded the theater. Katherine's rant reached a climax so powerful, so emotional, that even Petruchio was shocked.
The aftermath of the tragedy of "The Taming of the Shrew" was obvious. The wedding feast lay in ruins. The lights closed on a powerful final scene. Katherine and Petruchio sat alone on stage, she crying and he shocked. Suddenly, they realized they had nothing but each other. Slowly, they held hands, and the comedy ended on that tragic note.
St. Olaf's production of "The Taming of the Shrew" proved powerful and comical all at once. The comedy drew the audience from the challenges and tragedies of real life, while the tragedy of the final scene reminded just how real life can be. And that is all we can ask from art.