Shakespeare, outdoors, by the banks of a great urban river? No need to go back to the turn-of-the-17th-century Thames for this treat. And, for New Yorkers seeking Shakespeare in a park, no need to wait on line all day in Central Park only to be disappointed there are no more tickets. Pulse Ensemble Theatre’s Taming of the Shrew, directed by company founder Alexa Kelly, dances and clowns across the amphitheater stage at Riverbank State Park through August 4.
Though re-set in the Caribbean rather than Italy, what may be Shakespeare’s most culturally outdated play (message: wives should defer to their husbands absolutely) remains one of his most fun, especially when performed with this production’s high spirits and quick wit.
The Taming of the Shrew may well be the very first play Shakespeare’s wrote (at least without any collaborators), but if so it shares a fully baked familiarity with the traditions and tropes of the Elizabethan stage, beginning with its play-within-a-play framing device, presenting Shrew as a comedy staged by a troupe of players partly for the benefit of a party animal named Christopher Sly, whose friends dress him up as a lord when he’s passed out, then convince him he really is one when he comes to. True to the spirit of this comical setup, Shrew proves a mighty lark replete with absurd connivings, silly disguises, and prominent clowning.
Baptista, a rich gentleman in the original but in this version a mother played with smooth, smiling gravitas by Marcia Berry, has two daughters. No one wants to woo Kate, the insufferably sharp-tongued elder (the excellent Yvette King), but Baptista is keeping her sweet younger daughter Bianca off-limits to her multiple suitors until a mate is found for Kate. Enter Petruchio, who, to everyone’s delight except Kate’s, will dare to court her.
Michael Gilpin gives that brave soul some oddball phrasing but a cockeyed, comic swagger that feeds the clownish energy of the whole production. In full clowning mode is the hilarious (and acrobatic) Jonathan Dyrud, who gives a performance that becomes the apex of the whole celebratory structure Kelly has built around the text. It’s an exciting, full-throttle staging that easily survives a few pitfalls (noisy microphones, insect life, and a Bianca who, while appropriately charming, is hard to understand). Kelly and her creative team make the very most of the comic situations. I didn’t remember that there even were so many comic situations in this play. I’m happy to consider myself re-enlightened.
Pulse’s mission statement declares that the company is “dedicated to making the Classics accessible and exciting to the youth of today.” That mission may be hard to accomplish with a misogynistic text like Shrew:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign…
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband…
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
Nevertheless the production held the attention of the kids in the audience the night I attended, at least for most of its modest two-hour length, and that’s an accomplishment with a generation growing up accustomed to flitting from one quick Internet video to another. Though full of dancing and hijinks, it isn’t so much tailored for a young audience as committed to the antic spirit that infused Elizabethan comedies when they played by the Thames all those years ago. This summer, by the Hudson, you can experience something of that spirit without having to wait in any lines. And it’s free. Visit the Pulse Theatre Ensemble’s website for more info. To get there, just take the #1 train to 145th St. and walk west (down the hill) straight into Riverbank State Park.
Recommendation: bring a small cushion to sit on (amphitheater seating is hard on the bum) and bug spray.