2/22: Propeller Rips Through Ann Arbor Again

Two years ago, I saw my first Propeller shows, Richard III and Comedy of Errors, and—I’m not exaggerating—they changed my life. I’d just returned from an informal mini reunion with folks from college and realized that I’d missed theater tremendously. To see the fiery imagination of Ed Hall at work and, in the words of one critic, “dragging Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the 21st century” with his all-male troupe was like getting an electric blood transfusion, if such a thing were possible (or even makes any sense).

It kicked my study of Shakespeare, a sporadic practice over the last few years, into high gear. I loved Propeller with unqualified devotion on my first viewing, then saw the plays again in Boston a few months later. The second time, I was able to wipe the stars out of my eyes a bit and see that the shows were gangbusters good, but not perfect. Since them, I’ve seen a half dozen Shakespeare productions, from rank amateur to pro; some were very good indeed, but none were Propeller.

They’re back in A2, with Twelfth Night, which I’ll see Saturday, and Taming of the Shrew, which I saw tonight with my son. Shrew is an early play, and I find it to be in much worse shape than Two Gentlemen of Verona. Two Gents often gets knocked for its many two person scenes, but they’re preferable to the expository monologues that populate Shrew, in which random characters start babbling about all sorts of exciting stuff that’s just happened offstage. It also has the pesky Christopher Sly framing device, which could be interesting except that even Shakespeare seems to have tired of the drunken lout by Act I, at which point he sort of hiccups, then disappears.

In Hall’s version, Sly starts the play flat on his back, passed out in a booze coma. We the audience are privy to a plot—and here’s where it gets a bit muzzy—to teach Sly a lesson? entertain the plotters? be mean? I love a nice high concept as much as anyone, but there’s a fair bit of finagling to try to get the whole thing to work.

And therein, I think, lays the principle dilemma in this production. The purpose behind the Sly incorporation, no pun intended, is not quite clear. Neither is the motivation for Sly as he becomes Petruchio, and definitely not for Katharine. I was stunned that the Petruchio/Katharine first meeting scene was so flat; the sheer invention and comic brio that Propeller brings to most of its action scenes can leave the audience more breathless than the cast, but there was next to none of it here. I’d hoped to be startled by the delivery of Petruchio’s famous line to Katharine, “What? with my tongue in your tail?” Almost nothing was done with it. It could have been an aside. And I think it’s because that intention is still so shaky. Who the hell are these people? There’s no clear point of view for either, and so it’s just confusing.

As the play continues, Petruchio becomes increasingly power-mad and sadistic while Katharine shrinks and trembles, a battered hysteric being hideously bullied. It’s a bold take. Most women and hopefully as many men reading Shrew today cringe a bit, I imagine. What Hall’s done is insanely bold, which should surprise no one. But the problem, and it may be this cast, is that the characters don’t journey. To care about Katharine, we’d have to admire her saucy wenchiness; here, she looks fantastic in scarlet stockings and Doc Martens, but she has little joy in her bitchery and stalks around stage almost aimlessly at times. Meanwhile, in this particular interpretation, Sly/Petruchio needs to move from being a simple drunk to a man drunk on his false power, and one foolish enough to believe that this nonsense is some sort of key to happiness. He’s a true villain with few redeeming qualities, and needs to be played that way and unapologetically. For a very long time, it seems as if the character wants to have it all ways: the detachment of Sly, the sexy nonchalance of Petruchio that’s often played, but also the randomly cruel asshole demanded by this production’s premise.

I say this reluctantly, because I still love Propeller and I’d like to get as many people there as possible. The audience loved it, and so did I in patches; just not unqualifiedly. But that’s exactly why I hope people see it; I’d love to debate about it. Designer Michael Pavelka interweaves all manner of pop culture gaudiness into a wonderful visual patois, and Ben Ormerod’s lights and David Gregory’s sound design work magic both rough and subtle. John Dougall received some of the most consistent laughs as doddering Gremio, an ancient dandy in sky blue argyle knee socks. Arthur Wilson made a silly, manipulative, and delightful Bianca, and young Ben Allen makes a great deal of the small role of Biondello, right down to the glittery silver heels of his platform shoes.

And then there’s the ending, a stunner so powerful that suddenly, the play becomes something new. It’s kind of a mind fuck. It should be seen. Suffice it to say that Dan Wheeler’s Kate here comes fully and excruciatingly into her own, and it can break your heart or make you almost as angry as pre-Petruchio Kate thought she was. Maybe both. And after a late start, Vince Leigh’s Petruchio and Sly are finally one, and a terrifying one they are. This is what theater is, was meant to be, should be. I’ve said it before. Just see it.

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