(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)
Old time country music twangs and a cool spring breeze blows across the Zilker hillside as the moon hangs low on the horizon. Our unseasonably pleasant spring weather this year is a lovely start to the Zilker Hillside Theater season and a compelling reason to bring out the picnic blankets and coolers for Austin Shakespeare’s production of "The Taming of the Shrew," running through May 24.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, "Taming" has inspired plenty of re-tellings over the years: from "Kiss Me Kate" to "10 Things I Hate About You," we’ve watched countless men conspire to marry off a shrewish elder sister so that others may woo her demure younger sibling.
For those able to overlook the overt sexism and problematic currents of domestic violence in the play, this production is an entertaining foray into romantic comedy silliness.
In keeping with Austin Shakespeare’s tradition of late, director Anne Ciccolella has set the production far away in time and space from Shakespeare’s original imagining. Rather than the streets of Padua, characters ramble through the Texas hill country back in the 1890s, and to set the scene, the cast treats audiences to a rousing rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" at the top of the show.
Admittedly, it takes a while for our ears to get used to hearing "Austin" and "Fredericksburg" inserted into the verse, but the southern setting allows for some dramatic license that’ll get laughs.
Another feather in the production’s cap is the talented Marc Pouhé playing the romantic lead (Petruchio). Pouhé commands attention in his ankle length black duster and cowboy hat, which turns out to be a surprisingly fitting ensemble for the proud and blustery suitor.
With its thick layers of silliness, the production makes for a cute evening.
Bianca (Sara Cormier) walks onstage licking a lollypop the size of her head and the rodeo-style wrestling with her elder sister Kate (Gwedolyn Kelso) ends up remarkably well supported by the text. Tony Salinas also stands out for his clowning as Grumio, Petruchio’s hapless servant.
The quirky setting brings Texas charm to the Bard’s story at some inevitable cost to textual integrity. So while the production’s liberties will likely make Shakespeare purists cringe, the familiarity of the setting allows for some extra-textual fun that more laid-back audiences will certainly appreciate.
"The Taming of the Shrew" continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through May 24 at Zilker Hillside Theatre. www.austinshakespeare.org