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Utah Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is a heartfelt season highlight

SHARE Utah Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is a heartfelt season highlight

"THE TAMING OF THE SHREW," Utah Shakespeare Festival, through Sept. 5, Adams Shakespearean Theatre or Auditorium Theatre (matinees), 299 W. Center St., Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org)

CEDAR CITY, Utah — The Utah Shakespeare Festival has pulled out all the stops for its high-spirited and streamlined production of one of William Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, “The Taming of the Shrew,” directed by festival founder Fred Adams.

Thanks to scenic designer Vicki M. Smith, the setting of Padua is presented in a lovely and inviting way. Flowers cascade over the balconies of a warm Italian villa with marble pillars and stone walls that look as though they were painted with watercolors. Further embellishments, such as colored lanterns, are added for certain scenes, and Donna Ruzika’s lighting design bathes the set in color to enhance the beauty.

This charming world provides the backdrop for a story told at a fast and rollicking pace through many excellent performances.

A perplexed and put-upon Baptista Minola (Peter Sham) decides that his best chance for marrying off his hot-tempered, “shrewish” daughter Katherine (Melinda Pfundstein) is to require that she be married before her younger, popular sister Bianca (Natasha Harris) is allowed to do so. This puts pressure on Bianca’s would-be husbands to find someone willing to court Katherine.

Though she is often wilder and coarser in other stagings, Katherine here is set in a more sympathetic light, in large part due to the design and delivery of Harris’ deceptively two-faced Bianca, who works to antagonize Kate and bursts into sobs and shrieks only when their father is looking. Pfundstein shines in her role, wielding Katherine’s wounded emotions on her sleeve without sacrificing her strength or hot temper.

Arriving on the scene to court “Kate,” as he calls her, is Petruchio, played by Pfundstein’s husband, Brian Vaughn. He’s brash and cunning and wields the strength — and kindness — to calm Kate’s anger, and it’s no surprise that Vaughn and Pfundstein have great chemistry together. Vaughn also works to soften Petruchio’s character by gently indicating his fallibility.

Each of Bianca’s three suitors is made distinct yet equally enjoyable through the skill of the actor portraying him, from the elderly and unsavory Gremio (David Pichette) to the sneaky yet sensitive Hortensio (Drew Shirley) and clever and charming Lucentio (Sam Ashdown).

Also turning in smart performances are Aaron Galligan-Stierle, who displays impressive vocal ability as Petruchio’s servant Grumio, and Michael Doherty as Lucentio’s servant, ally and impersonator, Tranio. An extra dash of humor comes from Bree Murphy as Petruchio's downcast cook Sugarsop. Murphy demonstrates a knack for variety as she also plays the smug Widow pursuing Hortensio.

Bill Black’s elaborate costume design has everyone extremely well-garbed, from Bianca in her sumptuous gowns to Kate in her more modest dresses, to Petruchio in his wonderfully terrible mismatched wedding outfit and each of the suitor’s suits. Regardless of whom one looks upon, carefully created pieces greet the eye.

As Kate’s heart softens over time, Pfundstein communicates her journey and understanding of what Petruchio is trying to do and what his success would mean for her: a fresh start in a life in which she is loved and respected. The result of this gradual transformation is increased power in Kate’s iconic final speech.

USF’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is a nuanced, heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable season highlight. Though it has many silly and slapstick moments, it’s also a serious love story told with love.

If a festivalgoer can only see one production this summer, this is the one to see.

Content advisory: Shakespearean innuendo and double-entendres, and some slapstick violence.

Email: rbrutsch@deseretnews.com