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Theater Review - Georgia Shakespeare's a fool for love

Shrew: the Musical and Love's Labour's Lost run in repertory at the playhouse

If William Shakespeare were writing today, would he still wax lyrical over the nature and splendors of love in the 14-line sonnet form? Or would he confine his compositions to the 140-character tweet?

Georgia Shakespeare's production of Love's Labour's Lost winks at this very notion when one of the comedy's ardent noblemen composes a love letter on a Palm Pilot. Love's Labour's Lost runs in repertory with Shrew: the Musical, John R. Briggs' hit adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew with 1930s-style show tunes. Lost and Shrew serve as a matched pair of Shakespeare's problematic comedies, with Elizabethan-era plots and attitudes that may struggle to find relevance for contemporary audiences.

Shrew: the Musical premiered at Georgia Shakespeare in 1993 and attempted to mollify the original's unpleasant perspective on women. Briggs, who co-wrote original songs with arranger Dennis West, retains the play's basic premise, but transplants the action to 1930s Miami: Rich Baptista (Allen O'Reilly) will only marry off his vivacious daughter Bianca (Ann Marie Gideon) if he can first find a husband for her older sister, Katherine (Park Krausen), a pugnacious beauty who mercilessly browbeats her prospective mates.

Bianca's suitors enlist manly dancer Petruchio (Joe Knezevich) to woo and wed Katherine, and Petruchio agrees with the cocky, finger-snappin' tap dance "It's a Tough Job." Briggs' adaptation remains true to much of Shakespeare's original dialogue for the most famous scenes, while the performances and costuming suggest Guys and Dolls' Sky Masterson matching wits and locking lips with vintage Katharine Hepburn. Longtime Georgia Shakespeare vets Knezevich and Krausen live up to the concept with impressive chops as singers and dancers. They should've been doing musicals long ago.

Petruchio's unpleasant treatment of Katherine resembles the "fixer-upper" idea of marriage — the notion that once you tie the knot, you can improve your spouse's imperfections. Today, such an approach seems doomed to fail, but The Taming of the Shrew endorses a kind of female submissiveness worthy of Islamic fundamentalism: Petruchio has license to wed Katherine against her will, then deny her food and sleep until she succumbs to his authority. "This is a way to kill a wife with kindness," he preens.

Briggs' musical eliminates Shakespeare's climactic speech from the "tamed" Katherine and presents the couple more as a partnership of equals, particularly in their duet "I'll Bet on You," in which they wear matching satin pajamas and revel in each other's company. Granted, the couple falls in love at first sight, but Katherine deserves better than starvation, sleep deprivation and a marriage imposed on her. At least Bianca's secret courtship of young Hortensio (Brian Kurlander) depicts a woman with a chance to choose her own husband and includes an adorable duet, "Dreamin' of You."

Love's Labour's Lost, directed by Janice Akers, resounds with some of Shakespeare's most beautiful verse on the heavenly nature of love. The language seems to sparkle with the repeated imagery of eyes and light, especially when passionately recited by Brad Sherrill as Biron.

In Lost, King Ferdinand (Brian Kurlander) and his three advisors vow to spend three years in academic seclusion that requires fasting and prohibits womanly distraction, an ambition that clever, skeptical Biron recognizes as doomed from the start. The king makes an immediate exception to the female-free zone for an embassy from the Princess of France (Carolyn Cook) and her three ladies-in-waiting. The gents instantly fall for the women and immediately resolve to break their oaths.

Biron finds a match in clever Rosaline (Park Krausen), and the play's term "war of wits" deliberately evokes the "merry war" between the leads of Much Ado About Nothing. Both plays present the kind of couple who flirt-fight and complain about each other until everyone around them says, "Why don't you two just do it and get it over with?" In Lost, Rosaline's character has a sharp edge, but Krausen makes her so bitter and scornful, it's difficult to see any attachment to Biron. Courtney Patterson, who plays a smaller role in Lost, might have been a better match for the role and Sherrill alike.

Lost's plot relies on wheezy comedic conventions such as misplaced letters and contrived disguises. The play takes a fascinating turn in its final moments when — spoiler alert! — the princess' father dies, a development that Akers cunningly foreshadows. Not only do the four romances go unconsummated, the women require the men to vow to spend the next year under truly monastic restrictions, which feels like a disproportionate punishment to the men's frivolity. Nevertheless, Lost's bittersweet, ambiguous finale maintains that love must be tested if it's to survive.

Shrew and Lost alike feature extended, clownish subplots with laborious set-ups and precious little payoff, particularly with Lost's Don Armado (Tim McDonough), a quixotic Spaniard besotted with a local strumpet. Both plays illustrate the heart's timeless ability to cause sensible people to behave foolishly, but they also find words and melodies that evoke love's transcendent power. Maybe the next time you want to impress your sweetheart, instead of burning a CD full of romantic ballads, you should brush up on your Shakespeare.



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