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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Coronavirus: Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ crackles in Allouez

Coronavirus

Play-by-Play Theatre

Cast takes a bow at Play-by-Play Theatre presentation of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Heritage Hill Stage Historical Park in Allouez. (Warren Gerds)

ALLOUEZ, Wis. (WFRV) – A solid cast delivered an audacious comedy by William Shakespeare. That is the core thing.

The story is totally off the wall. A bodacious guy comes to town looking to get married, and he’s bold enough to take on a strong-headed woman who wants nothing of him.

That’s just for starters. All kinds of action takes place, a kind of flash flood of teasing, mocking and romping comedy.

“The Taming of the Shrew” has been around since the late 1500s… 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, 2000s – that means it’s been performed in six centuries. What can still be relevant? Human nature. People have foibles – vanities – and people are funny.

The cast of amateurs acted like it wasn’t.

The players have been around the block in area theater, and in the Play-by-Play Theatre production, they responded to the really smart and clever and inventive guidance of director Carolyn Silverberg. The players acted as though they wanted to be their specific, quirky character who had something comically pithy to say. Carolyn Silverberg pointed them in the right direction…

Will Knaapen as a male hormone, Petruchio.

Emily Holland as free spirit with a whip of a tongue, Katherine.

Brandon Ponschock and Lyle Becker as long-of-tooth adolescents at love – a couple of twits – Hortensio and Gremio.

Alyssa Hannam as a much-desired sweet and dense chocolate bar, Bianca.

Andrew Delaruelle as a whiz at playing his trump just right, Lucentio.

Katie Guzek as a master-of-disguise minion, Tranio.

Tranio, Tranio, Tranio… Tranio is not really a master of disguise because in this case, Carolyn Silverberg and Katie Guzek played with the character like Play-Doh. In the first place, the character of Tranio is male. So Katie Guzek played a male. And then Tranio takes on the disguise of his master, Lucentio. So Katie Guzek played another male. Of course, everybody in the play is fooled. Well, sort of everybody until the final crazy comeuppance. Other roles more simply were gender-switched – Baptista, the patriarch to matriarch, by Teresa Aportela Sergott, and Grumio, the manservant of Petrucio, but still male, by Rachel Ziolkowski. But the portrayal of Tranio was a super stretch, proving that Shakespeare is mighty pliable.

Costuming focused on expression of character. Petruchio was black-leather studly, such as his commanding high boots. Katherine was black-black goth. Baptista was flashy-regal, such as her glittery/spikey headwear.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is full of tricky hair-pin turns of comedy that takes every player paying keen attention to survive, and that happened with Sunday’s performances. The players were physical, animated, expressive and “on.”

Scene in which Katherine meets Petruchio. (Warren Gerds)

Now comes the hard part.

The thing took place despite having to row upstream against a strong current not with paddles but by using arms.

Last summer, Play-by-Play Theatre proved it could put on a Shakespeare play outdoors in downtown Whitney Park and succeed. The plan for this summer was to do two Shakespeare plays outdoors – a repeat of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Along came the coronavirus COVID-19.

It was not a case of “No problem, mon,” but Play-by-Play Theatre pressed forward. Led by artistic director Mary Ehlinger and her Shakespeare-trained daughter, Carolyn Silverberg, the company first created a “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” production as a first-of-its-kind video in the Green Bay area.

When the coronavirus grip clung, it became obvious there also would be no performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Whitney Park because of the free ticket situation and no simple means of control. Something like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, a solution was found. Likely there is more to it, but it seems Play-by-Play Theatre took matters into its own hands. Presto – scheduled were two performances for paying audiences at Heritage State Historical Park in Allouez. Announced Aug. 22, the performances sold out before showtime Aug. 30, with more than 100 people present for each performance, counting the audience, players and volunteer staff.

The performance space had to be created. It had to follow rules – safe distancing, masks, etc.

Little matters were big matters. Selling tickets. Managing the audience. Sound. Player safety. Rehearsals.

Decisions were snap, for sure.

There’s no business like show business.

And it all could have collapsed because of weather.

Sunday, there was no problem, mon. The day was in the 70s with puffy clouds floating leisurely. It WAS a great day.

Overview at Heritage Hill State Historical Park, Aug. 30, 2020. (Warren Gerds)

For coronavirus concerns, the players wore clear-plastic shields. There was no kiss me, Kate, in the show – just a meeting of shields.

The audience was spaced safe-distantly on a plaza outside the park’s entrance building, with some people seated in the balcony. Everything was marked for where viewers were to sit in their bring-along lawn chairs. (Somebody had to measure and mark off the space – another little/big matter).

The distancing seemed to mute audience reaction at the performance I attended. Laughter was hard to detect, though many scenes were loaded with funny stuff. Applause and cheers came at the end.

The stage was improvised, with backstage being on a grassy slope to the rear.

Each player wore a wireless headset. In the first performance, the wiring was iffy and lines sometimes crackled on the sets of Biondello (Ian Wisneski) and Bianca (Alyssa Hannam), but they soldiered through.

Heard in the background were vehicle sounds of nearby Wisconsin Highway 172, sirens on the highway and neighboring streets and airplanes small and large. Such noises go with the territory. At Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London, England, the roar of jumbo jets is continual.

At the 3:15 p.m. performance, Mary Ehlinger told of rehearsing by Zoom before the cast finally met in the lead-up week. She said, “We’ve done this because this is an extraordinary time.”

Because there were no printed programs, Carolyn Silverberg read her director’s notes that are online at playbyplaytheatre.org. She noted the extraordinary time when William Shakespeare wrote “The Taming of the Shrew.” So, do you prefer COVID-19 or the plague? Crummy choice, either way.

Carolyn Silverberg mentioned controversies with the play. There can be grumbles about male dominance. Predominantly, the thing is earthy, cheeky and outrageous – laughable.

In all, Heritage Hill State Historical Park truly was historical as host to the only full production of a William Shakespeare play produced there during a pandemic. Plus, the outcome was dynamic.

***

Creative: Playwright – William Shakespeare; director – Carolyn Silverberg; stage manager – Elizabeth Jolly; artistic director – Mary Ehlinger; costumes – Debra Jolly; sound op – Tim Funk

Cast (in order of appearance)

Lucentio – Andrew Delaurelle

Tranio – Katie Guzek

Baptista – Teresa Aportela Sergott

Gremio – Lyle Becker

Hortensio – Brandon Ponschock

Bianca – Alyssa Hannam

Katherine – Emily Holland

Biondello – Ian Wisneski

Petruchio – Will Knaapen

Grumio – Rachel Ziolkowski

Curtis/Widow – Emma Foley

Nathaniel/Pedant – Bailee Harper

Peter/Tailor/Vencentio – Scott Harpt

Running time: One hour, 40 minutes

Info: playbyplaytheatre.org (program, including bios, synopsis, director’s notes)

Talkback: 7 p.m. today, Monday, Aug. 31, on Play-by-Play Facebook

***

Side note: I got a bonus. Looking for a reference made about Petruchio stating he would grant a full share of his estate to Katherine, I opened my father’s copy of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” I got to know my father more. Out fell three pieces of paper. One was a little newspaper clipping with the headline, “Compass, Edge Employed to Trisect Angle.” On a slip of paper, my father drew in pencil the mathematical angles as the article instructed. My father became an engineer. Another newspaper clipping was from 1931, when my father was age 20. The article told of the characteristics Charles Lindbergh possessed, and which my father likely aspired to:

“Pride and self-respect are your outstanding qualities, and you are careful to do nothing to demean them. You are naturally modest in regard to your own accomplishments, in fact, you are more likely to underestimate yourself than to show any conceit, but you disapprove of anything which might lower your dignity.

“You are unselfishly delighted at any honor or praise given any one of your family as your sense of pride is for your family than for yourself.

“You have a somewhat retiring disposition. Your sense of honor is so fine as to be almost painful at times, and you will never do anything to degrade it whatever the cost.”

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