"There's small choice in rotten apples," so says Hortensio in Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, a phrase which some would argue also applies to experiencing The Bard's work here in Los Angeles.
Unlike other, smaller West Coast cities-with fewer actors-like San Diego, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and of course Ashland Oregon, Los Angeles does not have a major Shakespeare venue or festival. Yes, there are touring shows and occasional successes, but without a local repertory ensemble, trying to find quality Shakespeare in L.A. is often a fruitless endeavor.
Tonight is the final performance of Zoo District's production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW in and around the Orpheum Theater. Much has been made about the fact that this is live theater's first extended run on Broadway (downtown Los Angeles' Broadway) in over 40 years.
It is easy to see why Zoo District was inspired to use the Orpheum, as the theater's lavish, wood-paneled lounge evokes Elizabethan England, while the marble lobby hints at the play's Italian Renaissance setting. The environmental staging does add some excitement, but it also produces problems. The makeshift lighting does not add much nuance and it also shines on the audience, making for a rather toasty viewing experience. Similarly, the cavernous lobby does not reflect sound very well, giving the iambic pentameter a few more beats as it bounces off the Spanish ceiling towards the Mezzanine, instead of projecting out towards the audience.
The troupe of actors assembled for this THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is surprisingly diverse and talented for such a small show. There are no 23-year-olds playing noble fathers, only one person is double-cast, and while Michael Franco's Sly is appropriately over the top, Casey Lewis' Tranio and Nick Robert's Baptista are both subtle and understated.
But despite the efforts of individual performers, the ensemble as a whole cannot overcome the nuances of Shakespeare's words. Mercifully, British accents are not attempted, but the interplay between characters rarely feels natural, something that the traditional staging only exacerbates.
Shakespeare can sound if it were written the night before, but only with great training and extensive rehearsal. At the Orpheum, the lively cast does exceed the standards of most 99-seat houses, but they still sound as if they are reciting speeches at each other rather than casually speaking in their native tongue.
The two exceptions to this are Tamar Fortgang as Kate and Ed Cunningham as Petruchio. It must be said that both play their roles as if trying to reach the back of the Orpheum's 2,000-seat house, which at times serves the over-the-top temperaments of their characters. Their initial sparring scene shows this energy focused directly at each other and the results resemble two hungry animals clashing in the wild. Most likely, a great amount of work went into blocking this scene, which is why Shakespeare's 400-year-old language melts and becomes as heated and immediate as a California Gubernatorial debate.
Moments like this are what make this SHREW notable. Novelty may bring people to the theater, but it is the spark of genuine human interaction that keeps them in their seats.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.