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Ashland's finest of the current Shakespeare fest

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'THE TAMING OF THE SHREW' (Angus Bowmer Theatre) ★★★★½

The Taming of the Shrew, one of the trickier Shakespeare shows to present to modern audiences, has been given the Beach Boardwalk treatment by director David Ivers, with a rockabilly soundtrack that makes the show—and it's love-and-war attitude—not only palatable, but actually kind of sweet and infectious.

Kate (Nell Geisslinger), is the wild-child outsider of her family, who own a great deal of the Beach Front Boardwalk of Padua, with a roller coaster and Ferris wheel hovering over the impressive set. When Petruchio (Ted Deasy) arrives, the tattooed, guitar-strumming charmer from out of town quickly falls for Kate, in whom he recognizes a kindred soul, an outcast marching to her own drummer, much like himself. When her father agrees to marry her off to Petruchio, she rebels, vowing to make Petruchio's life a living hell, until Petruchio, played with far more heart and sweetness than in most productions, decides to tame her using the only means he can think of, which is basically to act crazier and more out-of-control than she is.

The less acceptable parts of Shakespeare's story, where Petruchio keeps Kate hungry, sleep-deprived and off-balance, saying it's all because he loves her too much to allow her to eat food that isn't as perfect as she—that stuff actually works here, because for once the show is played as a true romantic comedy, with a Petruchio and a Kate that we really hope end up together, happy at last. Geisslinger and Deasy have amazing chemistry together, and watching them fall in love, in fits and starts, is like a special effect unto itself, with the road to romance entertainingly rocky, right up to the final rock-and-roll-fueled climax.

'MY FAIR LADY' (Angus Bowmer Theatre) ★★★★★

Whether by design or by accident, OSF has paired one of the best Taming of the Shrews I've ever seen with the only production of My Fair Lady (through Nov. 3)—arguably a Victorian spin on Shrew—that hasn't made me squirm with discomfort.

The play that inspired the Lerner and Loewe musical, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, was trying to make a point about the unfairness of class distinction. Still, it carries the underlying suggestion that, way down deep, women like being bullied by men.

Henry Higgins (Jonathan Haugen) is a curmudgeonly expert in linguistics, who encounters a lower-class flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Rachael Warren), and takes her on as a student, all to prove that the only thing separating the poor folks from the rich folks, aside from money, is the way they speak.

Shaw, in creating the characters of Higgins and Eliza, shook things up in a big way, challenging long-held assumptions about class and humanity. But then he cavalierly wallpapers the show with misogynist one-liners that seem to be more than just a comment on Higgins' uncouth attitude. They seem to be inside jokes that all men will get a good laugh from.

In the musical version, which actually adds a happy ending for these two, the misogyny only gets worse. For Eliza to end up with this unfeeling, selfish, narcissistic, borderline sociopath is a tragedy, a disaster of epic proportions, for Eliza anyway.

That's why I don't like My Fair Lady.

So why do I love director Amanda Dehnert's sleek OSF version? For one thing, Dehnert is a genius. Understanding the problems plaguing the play, not content to merely stage it with pretty costumes and say, "Oh well, that was a different time," Dehnert has virtually rewritten the play from the inside out—without changing a single line.

The play begins when the doors open for the audience, two grand pianos at the center of the stage surrounded by racks of costumes, piles of props, several actors already present, stretching, warming their voices and chatting with each other. At the top of the show, actress Warren, not yet in character as Eliza, starts up a conversation with the audience, then produces her own cell phone, switches it off, and hides it beneath a bank of lights because, as she says, "I have to do this show now."

And suddenly, accompanied by just two pianos and the occasional cast member fiddling a few licks when appropriate, My Fair Lady begins, resembling a rehearsal more than a performance, with the cast all sitting onstage in a ramshackle set of chairs, watching the play themselves until called upon to don a costume and take part.

The effect is powerful and immediate.

Without sacrificing a bit of the charm of the characters or the music, it is clear that this is a game, and everyone knows it. That right there might have been enough, but the performances of Warren and Haugen, under Dehnert's delicate direction, reveal full-fledged human beings beneath the skin of these people. Eliza is allowed to be more than a screeching joke at the beginning and a simpering codependent at the end, and Higgins is amazing, a narcissistic bully who behaves the way he does because no one has ever forced him to grow up.

Eliza does force him to, and by the end of the play, each is warier and wiser, and when they come together in the final seconds of the play, which Dehnert allows to happen in the audience, away from the stage where their game has been played, they come together in a way I'd have thought impossible for My Fair Lady: as true equals, each recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in themselves and each other.

'TWO TRAINS RUNNING' (Angus Bowmer Theatre) ★★★★★

The late American playwright August Wilson, over the course of 25 years, wrote 10 plays unofficially called "the Century Cycle," since each takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. Two Trains Running (though July 7), which Wilson wrote in 1991, is his '60s play, taking place just over a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. inside the rundown Hill district coffee shop of self-made man Memphis (Terry Bellamy, magnificent).

The play covers a few days in the lives of the folks who've made Memphis' diner the hub of their existence. These are potently rich, real characters, flawed, frail and fleshed-out, from Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley), the flashy numbers runner who seems to be the only one making any money, and no-nonsense waitress Risa (Bakesta King, marvelously fierce and frail), whose practiced detachment masks a fierce sense of sadness, to recent parolee Sterling (OSF mainstay Kevin Kennerly), just looking for a break, and Hambone (an excellent Tyrone Wilson), the developmentally disabled man-child whom Risa gives free meals to. In many ways, Hambone—with his plaintive, oft-repeated cry "I want my ham!"— is the heart of the play, steadfastly insisting on getting what was once promised him, in exchange for painting a white grocer's fence 10 years before.

Directed with loving detail and a strong sense of character by Lou Bellamy—who's directed more of Wilson's plays than any other director on the planet—this is a great one for first-timers to Wilson's world. Arguably the most hopeful of his 10 plays, Two Trains Running is a generous play, distributing with lumpy impartiality a whole series of happy and semi-happy endings among its characters—characters that live such frustrated and hopeful lives, it is impossible not to want them to get everything they deserve, from ham to happiness, from a fair break to lasting love.

  • Ashland's finest of the current Shakespeare fest

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