I like Shakespeare as much as the next fair-minded English major (overexposure is no reason to reject something, guys), but I'm about ready to give up on the comedies. Tragedies, fine.
Histories, you bet. King Lear? Great work there, man! The comedies, while excellent poetry on the page, are rough ground for real-life theater companies. Because they just aren't funny. Some wordsmithery here and a fart joke there and over there you've got some sexual innuendo and then—don't worry—plenty more farting in act 3! But the language presents such a barrier for audiences that most characters become screaming, jabbering clowns. THOU SHALT NOT MISS THE GOOFINESS! 'TIS DECREED! It's exhausting.
Speaking of exhausting, this weekend I watched more than one Shakespeare-in-the-park production—more than one production of the same play, by different theater companies. The play is The Taming of the Shrew. The park is Volunteer. The person is me. The leg cramps are many.
Theater in parks is a lovely idea, if you happen to be in a park and it's sunny and you want something to look at. It is less lovely if you find yourself at the wrong park one day (Balagan, which was supposed to be at the Fremont Troll, moved to Volunteer Park at the last minute leaving no explanation or sign—we heard murmurs from other spectators as they wandered off) and caught in a torrential downpour the next (Wooden O's words were drowned out by frightening thunderclaps). Despite those pretty-serious inconveniences, the two productions offered some interesting contrasts.
A young woman played feisty and earnest acoustic guitar before the Balagan performance ("This is the kind of chick who—if you showed her to me in middle school—I would have died of wanting to be her," my friend whispered, slightly mortified). It was a fitting introduction. Balagan's production was young, rough. The cast was noticeably attractive (when Petruchio said, "For I am rough and woo not like a babe," you couldn't help feeling a little wobbly). They wore wristbands and had tattoos. They were eager and silly and almost impossible to follow, situated in a too-vague, timeless, contextless Padua (maybe the Troll would have helped?).
Wooden O's version was older, tighter, less hot, and much, much better. Their Padua became the Padua Trailer Park; their affect was full-on white trash: mesh shirts, miniskirts, NASCAR swagger, Southern twang. It worked like crazy. Every phrase that had seemed impenetrable in Balagan's version was clear as Crystal Pepsi at Wooden O. Bianca was a vapid beauty queen (it's much better when Bianca isn't sympathetic), Petruchio is a ringer for Christopher Meloni in Wet Hot American Summer, Baptista is the trailer-park matriarch.
The Taming of the Shrew is troubling in so many ways—there are always, like, 50 characters onstage at once; they all have similar names (Gremio, Grumio) and similar jobs (suitor, servant); that subplot where Tranio has to pretend to be Lucentio and woo Bianca while Lucentio tutors Bianca doesn't really make sense (I forget—why can't you just woo Bianca directly like a normal person?). And then, of course, there's the misogyny (whether Shakespeare intended it or not). The misogyny sucks. It's hard to escape, too—the physical violence toward Katherine is built into the script (lots of dragging and gripping and "Let me go!"); her eventually broken will is built into the title.
Wooden O performs a neat trick in the domestic-abuse-is-not-actually-hilarious arena. It's an old romantic-comedy trick: You can see Kate's infatuation with Petruchio from the moment she first stumbles out of the trailer and into his arms. This Kate comes pretamed; everything else is flirting, not fighting. Balagan's approach to the violence is way more interesting: Their Kate is in a wheelchair, and her subtle loss of mobility (and, by extension, personal dominion) makes all that problematic violence unnecessary. Petruchio doesn't have to drag her around—she's very much at the world's mercy—which makes her emotional digging-in-of-heels even more understandable.
But it's still not funny. And I'm all wet now. Thanks, park.