Chris Moore and Beth Woolley

The way I see it, the only real problem with the Prenzie Players (and it's more a problem for me than them) is that their performance standard is so consistently high that when they produce a show that satisfies even beyond that standard, you don't quite know how to describe it. Regarding the theatrical troupe's current production of The Taming of the Shrew, then, let me just state that it's the best time I've had at an area show in all of 2008. And, quite possibly, in all of 2007. And 2006. The invention and commitment and laugh-'til-you-cry hilarity of director Jeremy Mahr's presentation is truly staggering; it transports you to a state of complete happiness that you don't ever want to return from.

As is often the case with Prenzie endeavors, the happiness begins well before the 8 p.m. curtain. And while I don't want to say anything to ruin the magical surprise of Shrew's prelude, I will say that, on Friday night, the half hour "pre-show" featured snacks, a guitar solo, a lovely a cappella duet, and the most spot-on impersonation of Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic I've ever heard. Chances are good that when you see the show, the lineup will have changed - which is just one of many reasons why I'll be attending another Shrew performance this weekend - but what I'm guessing won't have changed is the opener's thoroughly ingratiating, anything-goes spirit. That, and the almost fearsomely strong work of Eddie Staver III.

Like the preamble, Staver's performance here is best left a surprise, but even if you've been blown away by the actor in the Green Room's productions of The Glass Menagerie, Carousel, and Fully Committed, you're likely to be in for a shock. As the drunken Christopher Sly for whom The Taming of the Shrew is staged (in a neat handling of the show's tricky sexual politics), Staver is so wholly in character that his immersion feels less like acting than morphing. For much of the show's length, Sly is tangential to the action, yet you still might find it impossible to tear your focus from him; Staver comes up with almost ridiculously inspired bits of comic business - his opening of a flask with both hands already full must be seen to be believed - and rattles off delirious Shakespearean rants as if doing so were the simplest thing in the world. It couldn't be, of course, but in Staver's ferociously funny portrayal, you never catch him sweating.

Amidst less formidable company, the actor might easily have walked off with the show. This production does not allow him that opportunity. Was it really only 13 months ago that Chris Moore made his Prenzie debut? So relaxed and charismatic that he seems to have been performing with the group since birth, Moore and his enormous talents (witnessed, in smaller doses, in King Henry the Fourth and Fifth) are showcased to superb effect as the shrew-taming Petruchio. He's an extraordinarily confident and commanding presence here, with a knack for throwaway rejoinders that leave the audience in stitches, and his scenes with J.C. Luxton - a robust, gloriously entertaining Grumio - are high-comedy heaven.

His scenes with Beth Woolley are no less marvelous. Mostly seen in the periphery of Prenzie offerings, yet always memorable, Woolley creates a singular figure with her Katherina. Sporting a hooded sweatshirt and a scowl that screams "hands off," the actress suggests a young woman who uses irrational anger to mask her misery, and Katherina's virulent outbursts at both Petruchio and her younger sister, Bianca (lusciously well-played by Woolley's actual sister, Maggie), are physically, and comedically, devastating. Yet it's in Woolley that Shrew also finds its soul; Katherina's gradual dismantling and eventual acceptance of Petruchio's love are handled with graceful, subtle emotional shading. (There may be no more moving stage moment this year than Katherina, with her back to us, plaintively recognizing that she has nothing left to wear.)

Incredibly, the aforementioned wonders still only hint at Taming of the Shrew's greatness. Jake Walker offers magnificently aggrieved readings as the elderly grouch Gremio; Andy Koski provides enrapturing romantic sentiment, and a thrilling touch of randiness, as Lucentio; Prenzie veterans Denise Yoder, Bryan Woods, and John Turner perform with expected skill and grin-inducing playfulness; Prenzie newcomers Jaci Entwisle, Dustin Oliver (in tongue-in-cheek drag), and the sprightly young Kim Franck prove welcome additions to the troupe. Mahr's staging, with the audience seated throughout the Masonic Temple's playing area, could be a master class in the clever orchestration of farcical movement and dialogue. The costuming - particularly Petruchio's and Grumio's unforgettable wedding garb - is sublime.

And for a production that begins as a joyous party, it only makes sense that the show should end with one. Just when those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's text are experiencing its presumed happy ending, the Prenzie Players present an even happier one, with a finale that stands as a beautiful act of inclusion - toasts, laughs, and cheerfulness abounds. There's even cake. The Taming of the Shrew is miraculous fun.


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