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Bard of Avondale 

The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane is billing this year's season, its 15th, as 'The Battle of the Sexes in New Orleans." What better way to kick off things than with The Taming of the Shrew"that is, if this romance really falls under that rough-and-tumble rubric. Personally, I have never been sure what the play's message is or even what it's about.

Although I greatly enjoyed Tulane's exuberant production, I was not a whit clearer in my understanding of the drama. Directors Ron Gural and Jim Fitzmorris have placed Shrew in an American-Italian community of several decades ago (complete with music by Louis Prima). It could be the Vieux Carré in the 1950s. But this New Orleans is more imaginative than literal, as designer David Raphel emphasizes with his linear set: a lighthearted piece of cubism that seems to await the entrance of hundreds of scantily-clad tap-dancing dames.

On one level, of course, Shrew is a battle royal between the sexes. Katharina, she who must be tamed, lives up to her Category Five name. Kate is explosive. Everyone quails before her fury. Her sister Bianca is the opposite " a gentle, attractive zephyr whom all the local swains would like to marry. The sisters' father will not allow Bianca to marry, however, until someone takes Katharina off his hands. The siblings' costumes (by Elizabeth Parent) delineate their opposition clearly; Katharina wears jeans and looks like she might be a truck driver, while Bianca is decked out in a demure pink dress. Bianca, while not as contentious as Kate, is not quite a goody two-shoes either; at times she seems hypocritical and scheming.

Enter Petruchio, a soldier, who 'has come to wife it wealthily in Padua, if wealthily then happily in Padua." He adds that he doesn't care if the lady in question is 'cursed and shrewd as Xanthippe, Socrates' wife, or worse" " or 'as rough as are the swelling Adriatic seas." He's not looking for love, but ducats. In Petruchio's avowal, affection gets short shrift. This profit motive gives him a believable reason for taking on Kate in the first place. One can admire the way Shakespeare propels his protagonist with a realistic driving force, a goal. But does money continue to be the driving force, or does Petruchio fall for the lusty wench as they grapple, emotionally and physically?

Still more troubling to the battle of the sexes premise is Kate's psychology. One reading of Shrew is that Kate resents the male-dominated society she lives in. She hates the skimpy, even wimpy, role allotted to women. She will not submit. This is certainly plausible. It's a feminist reading, perhaps. But is it the whole truth?

It's also possible that Kate is like a child who can't stop throwing tantrums, even though the tantrums bring her no happiness. What she wants is someone to break through the tormented shell of self that she's trapped in. She wants someone to set free her soul. Petruchio sets out to accomplish this" albeit not in a way that we now find easy to accept. 'I am as peremptory as she is proud-minded," he boasts to her father, while bargaining for her dowry. Clearly, Petruchio is game, but so were the contenders who stepped into the ring to defeat Muhammad Ali.

The Taming of the Shrew is a world championship match, and Petruchio's tactic is to demand obedience to his ever-shifting, often contrary whims. If he says the sun is the moon, Kate must also say it's the moon, until he changes direction and calls it the sun again. Meanwhile, he breaks down her resistance by starving her and dragging her from pillar to post.

The climactic moment comes when Katharina lectures the other wives about the true place of women, which is submission, obedience, decorum, etc. In a feminist staging of the play, this speech is often played ironically; directors Gural and Fitzmorris do not imply a subtext, leaving Kate's admonitions undiminished by any contemporary sensibilities.

As Kate and Petruchio, Rebecca Frank and Lorenzo Gonzalez fight this wry 15-rounder with tireless verve. Some of the other outstanding players include Sophie Amoss, Martin Covert, Randy Maggiore, Sean Patterson, George J. Sanchez and Michael Aaron Santos. Among the many joys of this production is the clarity of the language. The cast seems at home with the Bard's verse, and the audience easily understands what's being said.

In the end, of course, what matters most in a comedy is laughter. The Taming of the Shrew provokes laughter aplenty.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

DIRECTED BY RON GURAL & JIM FITZMORRIS

STARRING REBECCA FRANK, LORENZO GONZALEZ, SOPHIE AMOSS, MARTIN COVERT AND SEAN PATTERSON

7:30 p.m. Wed-Sat., June 11-14

TULANE UNIVERSITY, LUPIN THEATRE, 16 Newcomb pl., 865-5105; WWW.NEWORLEANSSHAKESPEARE.COM

click to enlarge Shrew is the word: It's not Grease, but the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's 1950s-flavored version of The Taming of the Shrew.
  • Shrew is the word: It's not Grease, but the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane's 1950s-flavored version of The Taming of the Shrew.
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