Pennsylvania Ballet - 'The Taming of the Shrew'
by Lew Whittington
February, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
John Cranko's ballet version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" looked great on PAB four years ago when they first did it and looks just as good now.
Kept in its Renaissance Italy setting, the simple story of sisters Katherina and Bianca -- put on the marriage block in by their father -- remains the ultimate tale of the battle of the sexes. It brought the Bard to ribald poetry and is matched at moments onstage by Cranko's witty interpretation with fights; pratfalls, slaps and other broad physical comedy mixed with sumptuous ballet moves. Cranko kept the bawdy sexist humor, which is somehow still satisfying for modern audiences.
Jane Bourne -- who sets Cranko's work on companies around the world and came in to polish the work for the second time -- told me one of the keys in keeping it fresh was the corps de ballet. She noted that even in sections where they are not given that much to do, their energy and precision was vital. As so it was for the two rotated casts I saw.
PAB's corps women are often letter-perfect and they had typical great moments here, but it was the men who have really been polished for this production. Just months ago in productions like "The Firebird" and "Dracula" the male corps was technically thrilling one moment, only to deflate with sloppy execution the next. "Shrew" showed both the men and women in beautifully spirited ensemble work during its court dances, promenades and gavottes. Even some of Cranko's clumsier phrasing flowed with tight unison work and airiness.
Scored to preludes by Domenico Scarlatti (adapted by Kurt-Heinz Stolze) there are no knockout musical moments as there were in another incarnation of this play, the great musical "Kiss Me Kate." But the almost incidental music, under the baton of Beatrice Jona Affron, is wryly suited for "Shrew's" cartoonish feel. The orchestra supported Cranko's gestural narratives with spirited comic flair and music hall clarity. For a few seasons now, ballet orchestra has been less academic and more aggressive in interpretation.
The different casts had different approaches to the mix of comedy and ballet. Amy Aldridge gave her Katherina so much fight and physicality that you thought she would explode. Her portrayal gave pause when she had to submit to the drunken Petruchio's demands, but her conviction either way was completely charming.
Martha Chamberlain's Kate nailed the physical comedy so well and infused an attitude of shrewd into her shrewness that it gave the part an entirely human feel. She had the haywire comedic timing of Lucille Ball, which made her ballet segments look even more sublime. Her fiery pirouette runs looked like she was attacking the town folk in the crowd scenes.
Petruchio, her soused fiancée (and foil) has the macho fireworks that principal dancers live for. Both James Ady and David Krensing also delivered the goods in different ways. Ady played for laughs broadly and repeating huge beautifully crisp tours and turns, whereas Krensing kept his reserve for the fireworks at the end with explosive leaps. At one point Krensing grasped Chamberlain's foot as she jumped away. She froze into a forced arabesque and pitched her torso down as if caught in a trap.
Jeffrey Gribler's sneezing, caved-in aristocrat Gremio, dressed like a canary at Carnivale and centuries away from Viagra therapy, is hilarious. Gribler was PAB's most gifted character dancer for years and here he masterfully reminds us of that. Real-life married couple Valerie Amiss and Edward Cieslak were beautifully partnered as the pristine Bianca and her princely suitor Lucentio (Cieslak switched-off as a hilariously fey Hortensio in the 2nd cast). And as the bar tarts who roll Petruchio and deceive Bianca's would-be suitors Hortensio and Lucentio, Riolama Lorenzo and Christine Cox are perfectly slutty.
Designer Susan Benson executed the vibrantly colored period costumes, and against a sketchbook two-tiered set, it was a feast for the eyes.