The Montford Park Players are an Asheville institution, currently in the midst of their 37th season as North Carolina’s longest running Shakespeare festival. One would think most of the town is familiar with the experience of attending a show at the Hazel Robinson Ampitheatre, but despite free admission and the allure of sitting under the stars while watching actors in doublets and corsets strut around a stage working on their vocal projection, there is still a large portion of Asheville’s population who haven’t even seen a MPP production.
For those who have not, there are a few things to know if you choose to attend their current production of Taming of the Shrew.
• One, you will enjoy it more with a chair, either your own or one you can rent for a measly $2 onsite.
• Two, you will enjoy it even more with wine or a beverage of your choice. Heck, feel free to bring an entire dinner, complete with table, linens, and real plates and forks, as many other audience members do.
• Three, there are bugs, prepare accordingly.
• Four, the show will inevitably run close to three hours with intermission.
• Five, you will be in the presence of real community theatre and all that entails — enthusiastic, almost precious commitment to the work, a rough-around-the-edges-type of show that has more heart and effort put towards it than many shows in town one would pay upwards of twenty dollars to attend, and performances that can range from the sublime to the stumblingly awkward, often at the exact same time.
The director of Taming, Mary Dillon, acknowledges in her director’s notes the difficulty of working with Shakespeare’s inherently misogynistic tale of the shrew Kate and her suitor, Petruchio, who endeavors to marry her in order to receive her massive dowry and help out a few friends who wish to court Kate’s lovely, non-shrewish sister Bianca — who of course can’t marry anyone until her father is able to cast off her older sister into marriage first. Hijinks ensue, as is the tendency with comedic Shakespeare, but suffice to say there is a real chemistry and attraction between Kate and Petruchio, and his mission throughout the play is to tame Kate’s obnoxious and headstrong nature through such methods as starvation and lack of sleep. Dillon boldly chooses to commit her production to a cartoonish, over-the-top style of acting, staging, costuming and design, complete with slapstick sound effects and blocking reminiscent of Bugs Bunny. This choice works most of the time, elevating the production into ridiculousness and thereby rendering all content, including the degradation of poor Kate, simply funny and absurd.
The sound effects work to highlight the humor of the blocking quite well, though the timing on opening night was often just a beat or so off. Also, the effects that worked the best were linked to actual action onstage; often there were sounds that were intending to augment some dialogue humor that would sound a little arbitrary and distracting. The costume choices of neon tights in orange, green, and pink added a nice loud goofiness to the production. A particular stroke of brilliance involved what seemed to be a very large codpiece resplendent with a bright green bow, worn by a fop character. Rae Cauthen committed wholeheartedly to the character of Kate with a great deal of shrieking, hostility and complete lack of fear of messing up her dress, and her physically comedic efforts paid off quite well. The highlight of the show comes with the best-known scene in the show, when Petruchio and Kate first meet and begin a war of flirtatious wit and argument, which Cauthen and Travis Lowe as Petruchio performed nearly perfectly. The fluidity and energy of the show sometimes lagged when the two main characters were not onstage, but in particular Maria Katsadouros as Bianca and Scott Keel as Hortensio, the fop, had a wonderful command of the language and effectively made their characters much more engaging than the stereotypical types they could have been.
Keep in mind that the Montford Park Players are not professionals, so accents often range from vaguely English to Southern, the set pieces are simple, and during intermission actors will come around with hats asking for donations. However, in terms of people doing something they love with such fervor, and creating truly entertaining experiences for the community free of charge, Montford Park Players can’t be beat. They deserve your presence, and you deserve to enjoy what they do, and enjoy it out under the lovely Asheville night sky. Just be sure not to forget the bug spray, chair, money for the hat, and the wine.
Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, directed by Mary Landingham Dillon. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through August 23. At Montford’s Hazel Robinson Ampitheatre, near the ballfields and the Montford Community Center.