I had hardly been in my seat at the Yale Repertory Theatre three minutes on Wednesday night before I realized that I was deliriously drunk. The strange thing was, I had not been drinking.
“The Taming of the Shrew” was my intoxication. It began as a basketball skittered across the teal stage to the sounds of salsa and two opposing gangs of fleet-footed Latinos clad in mismatched fluorescent clothing started a pick-up game in the street. The Sharks vs. the Sharks, I presumed. They somehow used a bright red sheet, hanging from a clothesline about nine feet off the ground, for a basket–or at least a backboard. And before I had the chance to wonder how anyone could ever hang laundry on that line, the game ended in a 2-2 tie and the men crashed to the floor and started rolling around. Of course! a wrestling tournament! That entertained for a while, and then I guess the men decided to hold a dance-a-thon, followed by a fashion show, but, truth be told, I was already sloshed.
I was comforted by the thought that director Mark Lamos and choreographer Sean Curran might have been tipsy when they created the opening sequence. The all-male cast, whooping and laughing and generally making happy noises, certainly seemed buzzed as they performed it.
Thanks to a blue neon sign and a generous, two-dimensional palm tree, I soon gathered that I was outside the home of Senor Baptista (Lazaro Perez) and his two daughters Bianca (Caesar Samayoa) and Kate (Ramon de Ocampo), in some sort of hodgepodge of Latin American and Spanish cities. And as soon as the first few lines were spoken with Spanish accents, I remembered that somewhere buried in this mayhem was a Shakespearean comedy.
But at all times, the familiar farce of male domination was subservient to considerable pomp and circumstance. I swear that Petruchio (Joseph Urla) made an entrance late in the first act on a bicycle cart with enormous training wheels and a dopey yellow horse head on the handlebars, dressed as Elvis.
In my stupor, I rather enjoyed that entrance, even though it defied my expectations slightly. (I might have anticipated Enrique Iglesias on a scooter, not the King on a bicycle taxi.) Equally astonishing was the moment when Kate lassoed Bianca like a naughty swine and then spit slowly onto her head. Or when Gremio (Jesse J. Perez), who bore a striking physical resemblance to Stalin, tossed his cane into the audience during Petruchio and Kate’s wedding reception — but I think that had surprised him as well. I remember being disappointed he didn’t toss the tequila bottle my way, instead.
I started to sober up during intermission — although I still couldn’t figure out why four TVs (two color, two black and white) showing Ford commercials and Spanish talk shows were set up exclusively for the break, or why the color sets were embedded into the back walls, about 18 feet up. But as soon as the second act started, the inebriation resumed, for me as well as the actors. It seemed as though men, women, food or clothing fell to the ground about every 20 seconds.
I was floored by how attractive I found de Ocampo as Kate, considering that she was a large man-shrew with commanding shoulders and a glare that could burn through several phone books. She was nicely dressed in what looked like next summer’s patriotic Old Navy attire — trendy jeans, a red-and-white striped top and straw sandal wedges — which naturally complemented Petruchio’s garb, right out of “Crocodile Dundee.” Together, they made a delectable pair, if not star-cross’d lovers. Their charisma and energy rose above the common clamor — an impressive accomplishment. And they were also responsible for the production’s surprisingly effective dramatic moments toward the end of the play when Petruchio tests, and shows off, Kate’s newfound obedience. I bet she could have used a couple shots to take the edge off of those tense minutes.
What pinatas, Latin rhythms and the three caballeros have to do with Shakespeare is as unknowable as the question is irrelevant. You can’t do traditional Shakespeare anymore. You hope to make the play relevant in a new way by putting the show in some challenging and provocative context, as the Yale Rep did magnificently with “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” this season. Or you could do what Mark Lamos did, which was heed the moral of this week’s Oscar-winning extravaganza, “Chicago”: “Razzle-dazzle ’em, and they’ll beg you for more.”
I wanted more, myself. But I didn’t want more razzle-dazzle as much as — dare I say — theatrical innovation, ingenuity, or restraint. Sure, my insobriety was enchanting, if puzzling, while it was happening, but the pleasure was temporary and as the screaming and banging of pots and pans increased in the second act, I realized that all I was really getting was a tremendous headache.