If, at any point, you find your mind wandering during director Jeff Coussens' Genesius Guild presentation of The Taming of the Shrew - and trust me, that won't happen often - snapping back to attention is easy: Just check out the reactions of the men watching the show from stage right. You'll have no trouble spotting them, because one of the guys is drunk off his ass, and the other's wearing a dress.
Heaven knows the competition is stiff, but have any of Shakespeare's comedic inspirations paid off quite as handsomely as the Bard's structuring of Shrew as a play within a play? Certainly, with the on-stage action performed as an epic goof on drunkard Christopher Sly - who's made to believe that he's actually a nobleman, and that the male page beside him is actually his wife - the author must've known how funny this conceit would be. Yet there's no way Shakespeare could've known how smartly it would play for audiences hundreds of years after its debut, who might otherwise find themselves hopelessly entangled in the knotty sexual politics. (The subject of female subjugation isn't exactly the laugh riot it may have been in the 16th Century.) Many modern takes on Taming of the Shrew excise the character of Sly completely, and the show still works; in 2007, Coussens himself directed a Sly-less version at Augustana College. As Genesius Guild's offering proves, though, this confused yet contented sot's presence can yield magnificent benefits - at least if that sot is played by James J. Loula.
Admittedly, I was initially leery about the framing device's inclusion here. At Saturday's performance, those playing the opener's huntsmen and servants didn't appear fully engaged in the dialogue, or very vocally confident, and the "let's pull a fast one on Sly" setup was presented with a rather heavy hand; I'd say the production took about 10 minutes to find its footing. But as soon as Loula's stumbling, slurring boozehound was allowed to command the stage, find it Shrew most definitely did. With Sly not so much three as five or six sheets to the wind, the actor came through with sensationally loopy readings that were absolutely right for the character; Loula was keenly aware of how drunks tend to get REAL loud on words that YOU don't necessarily expect THEM to emphasize. And once Loula was seated with Sly's "madam wife" (the endearing, subtly hilarious Bryce Taylor), the entirety of this Shrew came roaring to life ... though it was mostly our audience that was doing the roaring.
Coussens continually delivered astute pacing and well-executed choreography, and made generous use of the upper and lower levels on Lincoln Park's set; his compositions were particularly elegant whenever more than a dozen actors were seen simultaneously. But as usual, Coussens was especially generous toward his performers. A number of actors cast in Shrew's less overtly showy roles - Jeb Makula's Tranio, Greg Donley's Biondello, Michael Miller's Curtis, Mischa Hooker's Pedant - were allowed to emerge as robust, vital comedians. And there were inspiring second bananas galore: Neil Friberg's Lucentio, with his romantically intoxicated grin; Bob Hanske's Gremio, providing peerless randy-old-man laughs; Andy Curtiss' Hortensio, making hysterical asides while slurping spaghetti; James Alt's Grumio, achingly aggrieved by the ridiculousness surrounding him. Earl Strupp's Baptista, meanwhile, brought down Saturday's house with a flawless slow take to the crowd - in response to the absurd suggestion that his daughter Katherina was "fair and virtuous" - and while Shrew's few women are given far less to do than the men, Michele Stine lent sensibility, poise, and a game spirit to her Bianca.
Portraying the titular shrew, "game" didn't begin to describe Angela Rathman's spirit here; did the ever-wondrous costumer Ellen Dixon, by any chance, stitch firecrackers onto the actress' bodice? Traversing her character's arc from shrieking hellion to desperate victim to subservient (or is she?) bride, Rathman's Katherina is wildly entertaining (on Saturday, her apoplectic Act II fit received a deserved ovation), and as the vainglorious stud who "tames" her, David Cabassa is more assured than I've yet seen him. His Petruchio could stand to reveal more levels - he's basically the same blithely conceited gasbag at the end that he is at the beginning - but Cabassa's bluster and fast readings are still quite appealing.
Just about everything regarding Genesius Guild's season-opener is, and nothing more than the mead-guzzling cast member who's watching the action along with you. Wholly immersed in the goings-on, acknowledging the actors' occasional nods to him, and routinely cackling (with good reason) at the on-stage silliness, Loula's Christopher Sly here is that rare peripheral figure who's joyously outsize yet, incredibly, doesn't steal focus. In Taming of the Shrew, you give it to him gladly.
For information, visit Genesius.org.