By early last week the pace of rehearsals for The Taming of the Shrew had picked up at the Magic Theatre. It was time for the Cutting Ball Theater to try a run-through of the whole play, and performers and crew bustled in preparation. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers, seated at a computer console halfway up the raked house, was busy cuing invigorating blasts of Italian hip-hop and other atmospheric sounds. Actors, with obvious gusto, practiced leaping on one another, tumbling onto the floor, shouting, screaming, and miming outrageous slapstick violence. Three hip-hop dancers, meanwhile, legs and arms jabbing and swinging in ecstatic synchronization, swept on and off the stage.
In a rather striking contrast to this commotion, director Rob Melrose sat quite still, with only the occasional consultation here or brief suggestion there, as if calmly situated in the eye of a storm. But then, it would be better to say that as the Cutting Ball’s artistic director, he is the eye of the storm: ever placid, ever watchful, and very much at the center of all activity.
The Cutting Ball’s mission, as its Web site will tell you, is geared to experimental new plays and "re-visioned classics" through thoughtful, stylish productions that reach for "poetic" truths over "naturalistic or realistic" ones. And its shows including, notably, last season’s exquisite staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World invariably have a distinct sense of expertise, passion, and intelligence.
With its latest venture, a high-energy, cleverly updated, localized take on Shakespeare’s Shrew, the small but serious San Francisco company that Melrose founded in 1999 with partner and actor Paige Rogers (this production’s Kate) moves out of the 60-seat venues of the past and into the medium-big time of the Magic’s 160-seat Northside Theatre. It’s a significant step for a company still going places. Moreover, when the Cutting Ball premieres its very particular take on Shrew at the Magic this week, it will represent the culmination and confluence of several passions and pursuits for Melrose, Rogers, and their company, including the techniques and themes of commedia dell’arte, hip-hop, and, not least of all, a theater that reflects the diversity and particularity of its Bay Area environment.
Momentum for the current show began last season during a successful run of Macbeth at the Exit on Taylor.
"We were thinking of what our next Shakespeare was going to be," Melrose remembers. "David Sinaiko joined the cast when we extended, and I thought how Paige and David would make a great Kate and Petruchio. I [had also been] studying commedia dell’arte for a while, and in the summer I got a grant to go study with Antonio Fava in Italy, to kind of get it from the master. I love the influence of commedia dell’arte on Shakespeare’s work, [and] the most commedia dell’arte Shakespeare play is The Taming of the Shrew. The other thing is that my day job for the past eight years has been at the Marin Academy, [where] I’ve done lots of these big comedies [A] Midsummer [Night’s Dream], Comedy of Errors, As You Like It. Because it’s at a school and I don’t have a lot of the limitations you have in the professional world, I’ve let my imagination run free. I’ve been a lot more bold there than I have in my professional world. Just free and easy."
That’s where he asked students versed in hip-hop dance (some of whom have since graduated) to perform during the transitions between scenes. "That worked so well that we kept doing shows with them, and it’s been really fun," Melrose said. "I also taught my students commedia. All those influences kind of fused and made for really live, fun, and no-holds-barred productions."
Rogers adds, "Those comedies had a feeling of real joy about them. I said, ‘Robby, what is going on here that you can be so free, take all these risks, and feel fine about it?’ He said, ‘Because they’re my students and they will love me no matter what I do and their parents are going to love the show no matter what.’ I said, ‘For God’s sake, let’s get some of that going at Cutting Ball!’"
If the roots of this production were in the inspiration of chemistry and coincidence, the Cutting Ball soon had to grapple with a play that comes especially freighted with political and theatrical conventions. Faced with the decidedly un-p.c. "taming" plot in which the smart and willful Kate finally submits to Petruchio’s abrasive wooing stratagem, modern productions have tended to try to subvert (often by making simply ironic) the play’s patriarchal thrust. This works against the text, as Melrose points out. His solution is to emphasize the prologue or induction scene at the outset (often cut from other productions) in which the drunkard Christopher Sly (played by Sinaiko) is made to believe he is a wealthy aristo by a mischievous lord (played by Rogers). By emphasizing this framework, which serves to make the taming plot a play within the play, and by doubling up Sinaiko and Rogers in parts that place them in alternating positions of dominance and deception, the production cleverly opens up the comedy’s themes of role playing and the social construction of self.
Finally, by rooting it all in a contemporary San Francisco milieu that includes a porn-industry wrap party, a transvestite bar in the Mission, and the Folsom Street Fair, this Shrew celebrates the fluid nature of identity in Bay Area drag, where everybody knows all the world’s a stage.*
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Through July 29, $15$30
Previews Thurs/12Sat/14, 8 p.m.
Opens Sun/15, 5 p.m.
Runs Thurs.Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, bldg. D, Marina at Laguna, SF