Petruchio (Alex Fthenakis) and Katherine (Christina Hall) find true love.               Photo by Teresa Foote

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Late summer Shakespeare in the Park, a tradition in Evanston over the past several years, continued this August and into September, with Muse of Fire’s “Taming of the Shrew,” a challenging choice. In the hands of Muse of Fire director Jemma Alix Levy, however, audiences have the chance to look behind the overtly sexist language in the play to a story of true love and escape.

Offered free on the lawn of Ingraham Park, behind the Civic Center, the production includes no backgrounds and few props other than period costumes – the period this time being, apparently, the 1930s or ’40s. The setting here is almost irrelevant, though, as is the odd introduction, in which a traveling lord tricks drunken Christopher Sly, played wonderfully by Kevin Webb, that he is entitling to sit and enjoy a play.

And thus begins the play within the play, the “Taming of the Shrew.” The inner play’s plot centers upon the Shrew, Kate, who must marry first so her younger, more agreeable sister, Bianca can marry – according to the edict of their overbearing mother Baptista (Kelly Lynn Hogan).
Ms. Levy has cast Baptista as mother rather than father in a effort, perhaps, to take some of the sting out of the overt sexism in the text. The choice has a curious effect, but it does not successfully lessen the impact of the “obey your man” language that follows.

What does lessen the impact, at least somewhat, are the lead performances. By play’s end Christina Hall’s Kate is not the beaten and subdued wife seen in many performances. While the transition from angry, wild, bitter and shrill Kate from early in the play to the loving wife at the end is abrupt to say the least, the strength in Ms. Hall’s Kate remains. She is standing next to her husband, because she actually loves him – not because he “tamed” her.

Her husband is Petruchio, played with joyous ridiculousness by Alex Fthenakis. Initially, he enters the play willing to take on the challenge of wooing the impossible daughter, Kate, and thus open up the path to Bianca for others. Through facial expression, comic timing and even costume changes, Fthenakis creates a Petruchio one can believe Kate would fall for. Quirky, challenging, odd, but alluring, he is clearly unlike anyone she has encountered before. And fall for him she does.

Audiences and readers have for centuries struggled with the abusive language and acts that Petruchio uses to “tame” Kate. He starves her and stands her up at the altar, for example, and in the end convinces her to deliver a speech exhorting women to obey their men. And here the play gives one pause. In this respect, the shift from male Baptista to female is curious – Shakespeare’s play shows Kate escaping one abusive man for a more entertaining and more intelligent and, hopefully less abusive, one. Here, she avoids the buffoons who court her sister, but her escape is from her mother, an interesting choice indeed.

While the play centers upon Kate and Petruchio, the rest of the cast is excellent as well, including the aforementioned Mr. Webb, who humorously appears at various points throughout, despite having no more lines to speak. But Ms. Hall and Mr. Fthenkis are the show – and it is a show that should not be missed.

Evanston is lucky to have two wonderful theater companies in Muse of Fire and Arc Theater (at Ridgeville Park in July) offering free Shakespeare in the Park every summer. The companies offer different interpretations and different focuses, but both are excellent.

“Taming of the Shrew” performances are free in Ingraham Park (behind the Civic Center) through Sept. 8. The shows start at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and last about two hours and fifteen minutes. Because the shows are outdoors and under a rustling tree, the actors can be hard to hear at times – particularly when sirens pass or the wind picks up in the leaves.
If possible, audience members should bring their own chairs and arrive early enough to sit close.