Houston Ballet closes its 2014-2015 season of Shakespeare with John Cranko’s beloved The Taming of the Shrew. Opening night saw Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh reprise the roles of Katherina and Petruchio, which they previously danced in 2011, with Lauren Strongin as Katherina’s sister, Bianca, and Jared Matthews as Lucentio.
To be clear, Katherina is no shrew by modern day standards. She’s a woman with her own worldview and her own voice, a woman who won’t marry just any suitor. If it were up to Katherina, she probably wouldn’t marry at all, but there’s the issue of her younger sister, Bianca, the quintessential delicate flower of ideal matrimony. Bianca has a line of suitors at her balcony window, and Katherina does not. Naturally, one can imagine that would create a bit of resentment and just a smidge of shrew-like behavior.
Katherina was danced by Melody Mennite, whose strong emotional presence onstage makes her a natural fit for such a three-dimensional character. Mennite’s small frame packs a powerful punch, and she deals plenty of them in her wild tirades in Act One. Cranko’s choreography here is deeply seated in the characters, and Katherina’s movement is sharp, boxy, and filled with spurts of suddenly unleashed energy. This is a woman who has a lot to say, and knows she has little time or power to say it, so when the stage is hers it’s all or nothing. Mennite is rather excellent in her interpretation and her dancing was clear and punctual in all of Katherina’s furry.
Again, this is Shakespeare, so it would be stretch to call this character a feminist, especially when the title of the piece suggests that the shrew must be tamed rather than let be. But if anyone is going to tame her, it might as well be Petruchio, the city drunk who finds himself on hard times and agrees to marry Katherina for money. Walsh has a gift for interpreting larger-than-life roles, especially those that come with a wily grin of adulthood mischief. Act Two sees Petruchio taming the shrew, but the story is a bit more complicated than that. Petruchio is tamed, too. Essentially a wild man who is no good with money, Katherina gives him a reason to be respectable.
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Lauren Strongin and Jared Matthews made for a handsome counterpart to the burst of fireworks that is Katherina-Petruchio. Well-mannered, stately, and genteel, they looked the part of a fairytale bride and groom.
And the entire company looked strong in Cranko’s smart and clever choreography, which was filled with interesting partnering and engaging work for the corp. It’s the type of large-scale endeavor that makes for a fitting close to a great season.
Cranko’s choreography in Taming is quite a success, largely because it takes its cues from the shifting temperaments of its two lead characters, as well as the general fun spirit of Shakespeare’s comedy. There’s never a dull moment to be had, and it’s obvious that the entire company is relishing these ham-filled roles free of political correctness and good behavior. And on opening night, it was great to see Mennite and Walsh return to characters they clearly have an affinity for.
The Taming of the Shrew runs through June 21 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For more information, visit HB's Web site.