Comedy is a funny thing.
At the theater, what makes some grin makes others grimace. While some double over with laughter, others sit stone-faced or look like they would rather be attending a funeral than having paid good money to be sitting where they are.
Then there are all kinds of comedic styles. There's farce and slapstick and black comedy, as well as your run-of-the-mill, light-hearted, good-natured and upbeat varieties.
Over at the UA, Arizona Repertory Theatre is taking a crack at that old chestnut, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. You're familiar with this battle-of-the-sexes story which has been told in countless productions onstage and onscreen.
Petruchio (Jeremy Selim) bets his friends that he can "woo, wed and bed" the rambunctious and contrary Katharina (Chelsea Bowdren). The guys think it's pretty safe to bet against him, since Kate is headstrong, obdurate and about as far from the feminine ideal as a girl can get. But she must be wed before her younger sister, Bianca (Amy Shuttleworth), can entertain her numerous suitors, which include Petruchio's friends. So Petruchio launches his campaign to break this bucking bronco of a woman. He deprives her of sustenance, embarrasses her at their wedding and messes with her head.
I assure you that I am not a humorless, uber-PC feminist with a stick up my you-know-what—but I just don't find this funny.
Throughout the years, there have been all kinds of directorial interpretations which attempt to justify, soften, downplay or counter this unsavory aspect of the tale. Here, director Brent Gibbs has framed the entire story as a farce, just a silly bit of clowning around. And heaven knows, the men in this reading are far from paragons of virtue and intellect.
Still, there's that pesky abuse/submission thing. Although there are numerous subplots to which Gibbs directs plenty of focus, the story of Petruchio and Kate is central to the play and can't be denied.
There's plenty of talent on display in this production. The design elements are first-rate, and the largely student cast does a pretty good job of handling the bard's language.
This week, ART and Gibbs open The Tamer Tamed, written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, John Fletcher, which will run in repertory with Shrew. This play looks at Petruchio and a new wife after Katharina's death. (Perhaps Petruchio killed her with kindness, as he threatens in Shrew.)
Maybe this play just jars contemporary sensibilities too much for us to embrace even a pretty decent production. As my 11-year-old friend pronounced as we left the theater, "That was sexist."
Downtown at Beowulf Alley Theatre, there's a whole different kind of comedic adventure on display.
Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, by Jane Martin (which many think is a pseudonym), pulls together an odd assortment of folks in a story that feels like a cross between The Lone Ranger, Friday the 13th and Silence of the Lambs. It's actually a very inventive combination that manages to make us laugh— sometimes uncomfortably—and gasp with surprise and horror.
On a ranch facing foreclosure in Wyoming, the plucky Big 8 (Susan Arnold) is a former rodeo wonder who has been forced into retirement. She now reluctantly—and questionably—calls herself a healer and takes in injured rodeo cowboys for her special style of rehabilitation. Her current subject—er, patient—is RobBob (Lucas Gonzales), a sweet young thing exuding innocence and fascination with cowboy lore and its clear division of good guys and bad.
Appearing as a thunderstorm booms forebodingly is a young, punked-out woman who identifies herself as Shedevil (Holly-Marie Carlson). She is prone to Tourette syndrome-like outbursts and claims that Big 8's son has not only knocked her up, but has stolen thousands of dollars from her. She also claims that she's being chased by her current boyfriend, a Harley-riding Ukrainian prone to fits of violence.
Shedevil's presence sets off a sequence of events which would shock and amaze even the really, really bad guys of the old Wild West. Shoot, that was a time of storybook innocence compared to this.
Beowulf Alley's production, under Steve Anderson's direction, is solid, although on opening night, it didn't quite have the energy and rhythm needed to make it zing, especially in the first act. By the second act, the players pretty much found their stride.
The set by Joel Charles is very handsome, and the other technical elements—and there are some demanding ones—are quite well executed.
I'll wager that some might find this show offensive, or at least definitely not their cup of tea. But comedy is quirky—sort of like us.