General 8-14-2004

Dally Fringe: Jakki Spicer

Jakki Spicer adds a review of "The Tamer Tamed" to her review of "Plants and Animals."

Saturday, August 14
“The Tamer Tamed”

There is a little opera house in Manhattan, on Bowery and Bleecker, called the Amato. It is tucked inside a haphazardly renovated tenement house, and its stage is peopled by amateurs. It is where I learned to love opera. This is certainly not because of the glamour of the props or the expertise of the artists, but because of its intimacy. Even the mediocre singers emanated such a sincere intensity that you fell in love; and to be so close to the truly talented performers (none of the 128 seats is more than sixty feet from the stage) is to be completely immersed in their voices, in the dramatic moment. Amateur Elizabethan-era theater, served up at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, has that same potential. Which is why it is all the more disappointing that it does not deliver.

“The Tamer Tamed” was written by John Fletcher, a contemporary of Shakespeare, and in direct response to that playwright’s “Taming of the Shrew.” It is presented by Empere and the Lakeshore Players as a proto-feminist sequel to the wife-taming “Shrew:” Kate has died and Petruchio (Michael Mikula) has married again. This time his new wife, Maria (Kristen Mathisen), conspires with the married Byancha (Amy Gaspard) and the soon-to-be married Livia (Rebecca Droste) to tame the tamer, and rewrite the contract of marriage in the bargain. In the tradition of “Lysistrata,” Maria will not put out for her husband until he acquiesces to her demands, which, of course, infuriates Petruchio to no end. The plot then becomes more tangled than a “Dr. Phil” back story, and I am loathe to attempt to recreate it here. Suffice it to say that everyone attempts to manipulate everyone else to get what they want—for good or for ill; daughters and wives infuriate fathers and husbands, who often prove pitiable beasts; and true love—not to mention the institution of marriage—despite all the onslaughts it suffers, triumphs in the end.

With such a convoluted plot, one perhaps needs better performers—which is not to say that some here aren’t quite good. But only Mathisen, as Maria, seems entirely comfortable in the language. The others seem to have more or less difficulty fitting the Elizabethan diction into their mouths, and this distraction made it trying, at least for this reviewer, to follow the story’s many twists and turns: Petruchio gives in—but doesn’t, threatens divorce or a long sea voyage, dies, or only plays dead; Livia pledges herself to the young Rowland (Chris McGahan), while her father (J. Jay Urmann) has promised her to the aged and icky Moroso (Brian Sherman); Rowland falls out of love with Livia and bets Tranio (Paul McGlynn) £200 he won’t fall back in love with her, Tranio conspires to win said bet; and so on.

Perhaps opera would have been a better choice in this case. The Amato has no supertitles, and the intricacies of operatic plots are often obscured, but the force of the music envelopes one nonetheless. “The Tamer Tamed,” despite some valiant and sometimes interesting efforts, remains tame and at a distance. One never quite gets beyond the awkwardness of the costumes, the delivery, the small stage—one never enters the play. Nevertheless, one has to admire the riskiness of the choice—Fringe shows are rarely more than a few years old, and tend to thrive on their contemporariness. Staging a play in this venue that was written considerably more than three hundred years ago, even one with feminist leanings, is daring, and deserves a nod.

Friday, August 13
“Plants and Animals”

This means, too, that I missed out on the flurry of activity and nerves on opening night, the jostling of promise and anticipation that inaugurates the festival. I saw my first performance for this year, in fact, last night—Friday the 13th. While some of the energy might have thus shifted gears, these plays are still on throughout the weekend, and no doubt will still be performed with due intensity, so don’t feel cheated. Just go see them.

There are many great epics of Western culture: Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And so it is both hubris and simple participation in civilization to attempt to create another one. This is the premise of “Plants and Animals: The Disgusting Crimes of Nature” by Scot Augustson (directed by Margot Bordelon, and starring Megan Hill and Jonah Von Spreecken). However, it seems it is not so much notions of grandeur, nor heroic deeds, nor great moral lessons that spark the birth of this epic, but the much more life-sized desire to avoid homework.

The stage opens with the two narrators sprawled, asleep, in chairs, only to awaken suddenly, aroused by nightmares of chores undone. Among other dreaded tasks, each remembers promising to do homework with the other: Their dreams of chores give way only to the reality of them. But our brave actors decide to thwart this distasteful reality in favor of narrating their own epic tale. The antics of the actors play to this choice—rather than focus on a clear moral message or highlight stunning acts of courage (all on the side, after all, of the civilizing qualities of homework), they plunge without reservation into the pleasures of fun.

The epic in question involves a conspiracy between the plants and animals of the world to rise up and conquer the human race, and the valiant attempts of our two intrepid heroes, 11-year-old Lily and 10-and-half-year-old Buck, to thwart nature’s evil plans. Hill and Von Spreecken each play a variety of characters—including not only the unnamed narrators and the two young protagonists, but also Dr. Sam Buckingham, preeminent zoologist; Boston Terrier, a Boston-accented, Red Sox cap-wearing Boston terrier; General Radish, war-mongering radish; the appropriately named Angry Wheat; and Frau Sturmunddrang, German nanny—with enthusiastic aplomb. Their versatility in portraying this dizzying array of characters is matched only by their creative use of props, employed with an audacity that is pure delight. They even manage to prepare us for a sequel—surely a requirement for the epic.

One wonders what this company would do with, for instance, Lord of the Rings. The image of an actor portraying both Frodo and Aragorn, leaping frantically from knees to feet while condensing some great moral quandary into a few well-worded phrases reminds one that sometimes the great human conditions epics are meant to display are not only fortitude and selfless purpose, but also generous laughter.