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DRAMA : 150 Minutes of Comedy--and Circus--Sets the Stage : The Ojai Shakespeare Festival's eleventh season opens with a fast-paced 'The Taming of the Shrew.'


One of Shakespeare's funniest works, "The Taming of the Shrew," has been goosed to a feverish tempo by co-directors Paul Backer and Terry Donovan Smith. Two and a half hours of comedy--sometimes coming at the audience from several directions at once--opened the Ojai Shakespeare Festival's eleventh season last week.

The troupe last year began producing two plays each season; one for evening performances, the other for afternoons. "Shrew" is this season's Saturday and Sunday afternoon show, and "Romeo and Juliet" begins tomorrow night.

While neither exactly qualifies as underexposed Shakespeare (this is the festival's second "Shrew"), chances are good that theatergoers have never seen fiery Katherine subdued with this much going on in the sidelines. Several times during Saturday's performance, the audience burst into applause to either the strong acting or imaginative staging.

Backer and Donovan have appropriated centuries-old techniques of the Italian commedia dell'arte , which is a fancy-sounding way of saying that they've populated the stage with clowns, jugglers, gymnastics, cross-dressing actors and a genuine wooden slapstick. The play--written as a fable, not a history, and set in Italy--lends itself well to this kind of disrespectful treatment, and little is lost in the translation from comedy to circus.

Beautiful and well-mannered, Bianca is the object of desire by every single man in Padua. There's only one problem: Bianca's wealthy father has decreed that before she is allowed to marry any of her suitors, her elder sister Katherine must marry first.

But who would marry Katherine? Lovely though she may be, "Kate" is strong-minded, ill-tempered and possesses an evil tongue. There isn't a man in Padua who's a match for her.

Until, that is, the arrival of Petruchio, a supremely self-confident soldier-of-fortune who's on the hunt for a wealthy wife. And it isn't Bianca who arouses his interest, but Kate.

All's well that ends well, to coin a phrase, but it takes a while for everybody to get what or whom he or she deserves. And that's where the fun lies. Shakespeare wrote some impressive roles for women--or for men playing women--and Kate is one of his strongest subjects, with Petruchio an uncommon match.

(Ojai Shakespeare Festival artistic director Backer tries to make a case in his program notes for Kate's retaining her spirit after her dealings with Petruchio. But decide for yourself whether he's just trying to keep a mob of angry feminists from picketing Stratford-on-Avon).

Performances are strong throughout, from the attractive pairing of Jaye Hersh and Geoff Foley as Kate and Petruchio; Keith Harrop, Jill Greenwood, Richard Goad and Francine Cohen as zany servants (the word "zany," by the way, derives from commedia dell'arte ); and Jill Macy, Kristin Pelfrey and Douglas Hill as Bianca's suitors.

Brenda Kenworthy plays a spunkier Bianca than we're used to, possibly the first to moon her elder sister in defiance. Several other players contribute in lesser roles and to the pre-show entertainment.

Lisa Foley and Deborah Wolk are credited with the fine costumes, and Todd Littlehale and Oatley Kidder are responsible for the minimal set against which the company performs.

"The Taming of the Shrew" continues Saturday and Sunday afternoons through Aug. 15 at Libbey Bowl in Ojai's Libbey Park. All performances are at 1 p.m. Tickets are $8 general, $7 students and seniors, and the newly announced $3 ticket price for those 13 to 18 years old. Children under 13 are admitted for $3 when accompanied by an adult, with a limit of four children per adult.

The audience is seated on the grass outside the Bowl, so you might want to bring a blanket or low folding chair, which (because Shakespeare fans are so considerate) won't interfere with the sight lines of others. For more information, call 646-WILL.

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