Sunday, July 14, 2019

I'm Just a Girl

Making "The Taming of the Shrew" relevant for 21st century audiences is challenging and therein lies the rub.

I have seen the play produced every which way: set in the wild, wild west at an outdoor stage framing Roanoke Sound; set on a 1930s Hollywood movie set at a toney West End school; and as a staged reading where Petruchio lost his place in his script, causing Katarina to shrewishly shout, "Page 42!"

And while I have been a devoted audience member for gender-reversed stagings of many of the Bard's best - Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream and even Coriolanus - I had never seen a Shakespeare play done by an all-female cast. Until tonight.

Hallelujah and pass the estrogen.

With so much talent and so many girl parts on stage, it felt like a fitting production to follow the women's soccer team's world triumph. 2019, the year of girl power continues. Knowing that men had originally played all the women's parts in Shakespeare's time made it all the sweeter.

Foto Boy and I began the evening in the front tiki booth at My Noodle & Bar for dinner, scarfing my broccoli and chicken entree and his green curry tofu while he tried to cool down after a hot day spent holding a yard sale. Our server couldn't refill the blue water bottle on our table often enough.

Anticipating a sweaty evening at an outdoor stage - and because this wasn't my first Agecroft rodeo - I'd brought along fans for us both. For myself, I'd chosen a fan that doubled as a program from a 2013 Sycamore Rouge production of "Twelfth Night" in Petersburg. When I saw that the director of that production is now the artistic director of Quill and tonight's production manager and that the actress who'd played Viola would play tonight's Petruchio, it seemed like an inspired choice.

You can be sure I showed it to both of them before the night was over.

We found seats in the second row, only to wind up behind the three tallest people in attendance. When I told the guy in front of me that he won for best shirt - brown with leopard markings and bees embroidered on the front - he said I got the best lipstick award. Sharing that it's called Violetini, his response was, "Hello, Violetini."

Best summation of what we were about to see: "I know it's a problem play, but it can't be misogynistic with an all women cast, right?" Um, we'll see?

The show began, appropriately enough, with songs of female empowerment - "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar," "You Don't Own Me" and "I'm Just a Girl" - sung by the cast and accompanied by guitar, ukulele, kazoo and random compliments like, "You're so beautiful you could be an air hostess in the '60s."

Use thoughts and wits to win her

We were just getting into the set-up of the story, so it was well after Baptista tells his daughter Bianca's multiple suitors that she will not be married off until her shrewish sister Katarina gets hitched, yet not long past when Petruchio arrives looking "happily to wive and thrive as best I may" that there was a shout behind us because a woman in the audience had fainted.

All eyes turned to see.

After she came to in her seat, a cluster of doctors who just happened to be out for a night of Shakespeare, began gathering around her, suggesting she lay down on the ground for a bit. Eventually she stood and her date led her across the now-empty stage toward the building.

House manager Noah took to the stage, saying, "So, everybody hydrate! We'll resume in just a minute. Just ignore that ambulance out there. It's definitely not the first time this has happened."

Ah, the hazards of Shakespeare outdoors in July.

Waiting for the play to resume, the tall trio in front of us shared that the fainting was all their fault. Seems whenever they go out together, bad things happen to others. Sometimes it's minor, like somebody vomiting nearby and other times, like when they were at a restaurant for Cinqo de Mayo, somebody committed suicide by jumping off the balcony.

Foto Boy and I inched our chairs back away from these Typhoid Marys and hoped for the best.

When the play started up again, the brilliantly comedic Maggie Bavolack playing the aged Gremio observed, "I had forgotten my line anyway!" before taking up the script exactly where she'd left off. Not long after, as a small plane flew overhead, she improvised, "Hark! There's a plane!" and cracked up the entire audience. Like the talented comedienne she is, she waited for the laughs to die down before saying, "Hark! This gentleman is happily arrived" and then posing, hands under chin with a big smile.

I know she is an irksome, brawling scold 

Bianca Bryan was masterful as Petruchio, denying his bride Kate her creature comforts (food, sleep, clean clothing), but also hilarious, as when she showed up for their wedding wearing dirty pants with "Kiss me, Kate" embroidered on the back pockets.

For I am rough and woo not like a babe

During intermission, bottles of water were handed out for free and after claiming ours and pouring their contents into the large water bottles we'd brought, we strolled over to the stone patio to admire the waxing moon ahead of Tuesday's full moon.

Overheard on the way back to our seats: "You didn't tell me I needed to see movie before I came tonight!" to which her friend explained that "Kiss Me, Kate" was based on "Taming," not the other way around. I suppose reading it - even a synopsis - never occurred to the angry first-timer.

Act II began with the cast singing Adele's "Hello" followed by "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" and "Tell Me Do You Love Me, Too?" and an extended kazoo solo by the actress playing Bianca. Petruchio and Kate then took the stage so he could serenade her with the greatest stalker song of all time, the Police's "Every Breath You Take" while she grimaced at the lyrics.

I'm with you, girl, that is so not a love song. Creepy, that's what it is.

For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich

Throughout the hot, sticky evening, Foto Boy and I marveled at the actors running, jumping and  stage fighting in layers of heavy men's clothing while we sweated in our minimal summer garb.

Director Chelsea Burke kept the thirteen talented women busy moving the story along with only a few of the actors being difficult to hear. Allison Paige Gilman shone as the small but mighty Tranio, her sense of comedic timing impressive, her face wildly expressive and her physicality fun to watch. Desiree Dabney turned the Hortensio role into something special with her asides and noises of upset and displeasure. Easily one of the best at nailing the Bard's cadences and projecting her voice to the fainting seats was Meg Carnahan as Biondello.

But truly, everyone shone (and not just from perspiration) and you could tell how much fun they were having with this all-female cast doing such a dated, chauvinistic play. Besides, I always tell myself that while Katarina appears to have been subdued, when they're alone she calls all the shots and Petruchio does her bidding willingly.

But that's just my take so I can enjoy it without feminist guilt.

Because of the delay - where's a fainting couch when you need one? - by the time we left Agecroft, it was time to head directly to the Basement for the piano bar known as the Ghost Light afterparty, which was in full swing when we walked in.

There were cast members from "Dance Nation" already with beverages in hand and soon some of the "Taming" cast showed up, along with theater types and lovers from all over town.

As host Matt (also part of that 2013 cast on my fan from Sycamore Rouge) proclaimed in between songs, "Through musical theater, we can do all things!" Evenings like this are proof of that, no?

We found room to stand at a table near the back with a great view and fine acoustics for songs sung by anyone who cared to get up there. Song choices always vary widely and yet still hue to millennial favorites with a surprise or two thrown in, a fact I know from all my years attending these after parties.

There's "Seasons of Love" from "Rent, a perennial singalong favorite with this crowd, but also "A Whole New World" because of the crowd's childhood nostalgia. A song from "The Fantasticks" because it's currently in production at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. Tonight we got a couple of unlikely choices: Radiohead's "Creep" and Elvis' "Blue Christmas."

When Foto Boy wondered aloud about the odder selections, I explained that there's no rhyme or reason to what you hear at Ghost Light. You come for the buzzy vibe, fabulous voices and to see what craziness might happen over the course of the evening.

Why, indeed. As the Bard so wisely put it, "Sit by my side and let the world slip; we shall never be younger." It's really that simple.

Truth be told, after a night at Agecroft, the air conditioning doesn't hurt either.

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