If Front Range theater were baseball, the Denver Center Theatre Company would be the Major League. Walking into the Stage Theatre is like walking into a pro ballpark. The energy crackles in a way that it simply doesn’t in many smaller venues, and audience expectations are understandably higher than they would be at a “minor league” performance.
For 33 years and under the leadership of only three men, the Denver Center Theatre Company has produced some of the most consistently thrilling, challenging and fulfilling theater in the Rocky Mountain region. The DCTC continues its tradition of excellence with Shakespeare’s anachronistic but immortal The Taming of the Shrew.
David M. Barber’s scenic design sets an ebullient tone the moment one steps inside the theater. An outsized map of the United States featuring Italian stand-ins for the cities and towns dominates the rear of the stage. It, along with the advertisements that flank the stage, is done in a retro style perfectly evocative of the 1950s setting and vibe Director Kent Thompson chose for this production.
Thompson’s choice to set this Shrew in the ’50s is genius. Those young enough to not remember a time before the Internet — let alone a time before color television — may not realize that sexual politics and the nature of marriage differed drastically just those few decades ago. A man’s home truly was his castle, and a wife’s place was — to a much wider degree than today — inside it. It was a time when nobody batted an eyelash when Ralph Kramden regularly threatened
to beat his wife with the then-classic line, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon!” The culturally ingrained sexism of the Eisenhower era echoes the phallocentric world of the play and thereby makes the play’s misogyny somewhat less unpalatable. More than that, however, Thompson uses the setting to great comic effect by pointing up the regional differences that have largely faded away since the advent of inexpensive air travel, the 24-hour news cycle and the foreshortening of the online universe.
Lucentio (Drew Cortese) and his servant Tranio (Matt Zambrano) hail from Pisa, which is New York City in this Shrew, and they ooze so many East Coast Italian stereotypes that one feels they’d be just as at home working for Tony Soprano as courting Baptista Minola’s daughter. Baptista (Robert Sicular) and his two daughters, the fair Bianca (Christy McIntosh) and the foul Katherine (Kathleen McCall), reside in Padua — Chicago here, as evidenced by Gremio’s (Randy Moore) Midwestern drawl. Joining the fray are Petruchio ( John G. Preston) and his servant Grumio (Andrew Schwartz), who arrive from Verona (aka Dallas) and are the steer horn-adorned Cadillac equivalents of their guido brethren.
The young, attractive and vacuous Bianca is the prize sought by Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio (John- Michael Marrs doing a fabulous Elvis impersonation for a time).
Baptista has proclaimed that Bianca shall not marry until Katherine — known more regularly as Kate — finds a husband.
For a handsome fee from the three suitors and the hope of a large dowry from Baptista, Petruchio takes up the challenge of taming the shrewish Kate.
Though common in the original time of the play — and, to a lesser degree, in the 1950s — Petruchio’s approach to breaking Kate’s spirits and Kate’s eventual submission are the apex of political incorrectness today. Many versions of The Taming of the Shrew attempt thematic aikido by turning Kate’s “evolution” from harridan to happy homemaker into a pseudo-feminist triumph. That approach fails more often than it succeeds, so Thompson’s decision to eschew it is quite welcome.
Everything about The Denver Center Theatre Company’s Shrew is excellently done. The Taming of the Shrew is a theatrical grand slam.