A scene from The Taming of the Shrew
(© Philip Tull)
A scene from The Taming of the Shrew
(© Philip Tull)
Is Edward Hall the greatest director of Shakespeare plays eagerly working today? Is his all-male Propeller troupe the greatest Shakespearean ensemble? After watching a double bill of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night in one eight-hour stretch (dinner break included), I'll go out on a very short limb and answer "yes" to both questions. Bona fide Bard lovers would do themselves a great disservice if they were to miss either of these productions and a worse disservice if they miss both, because the whole comes to so much more than the sum of its two parts.

Hall, who talks about "clarity" and "speed" when he discusses staging Shakespeare, approaches these plays as if they are fireworks displays -- which is to say that when his 13-man group arrives, it's in seemingly endless bursts of imagination and color. This is true despite set and costume designer Michael Pavelka's dressing the Twelfth Night cast strictly in black, white, gray, and red.

While the Propeller lads are frolicking, they sometimes drop their trousers to moon each other or the audience for whatever risible reason; but as they go about their boisterous activities, they're always fully garbed in inspiration and in sweet and melancholy music of their own devising. Incidentally, the Propeller productions are developed at England's Watermill Theatre -- also home to John Doyle, another believer in having actors play instruments at the drop of a hat.

It's useless to declare either The Taming of the Shrew or Twelfth Night the better of Hall's paired offerings. They're both triumphant. But perhaps an edge might be given the former because, in preparing it, the director -- billed as having adapted the text with Roger Warren -- has found a way to solve the ticklish problem that the circa-1592 comedy holds for contemporary audiences. Shakespeare's rough screed does seem to promote the belief that men must teach women their inferior status in marriage, but Hall and Warren find a way to banish that thought. Exactly how they snatch this Shrew from the jaws of political incorrectness, while also introducing words like "okay" and references to books like The Joy of Sex, won't be described here; that would be putting a pin into the joy balloon. It's enough to say that they expand on the Christopher Sly prologue with which Shakespeare turns the Petruchio-pursues-Kate action into a play within a play.

Good directors, particularly those vivifying comedies, know the value of surprises. The more surprises, the better the director. Hall uncorks so many that they're impossible to count. In The Taming of the Shrew, none is more eye-popping and thigh-slapping than the outfit that Petruchio (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) wears when wedding Simon Scardifield's hairy-chested Kate. Of course, in any good production of any play, surprises are provided not only by imaginative directors but by actors as well. Throughout this entry, Bruce-Lockhart and Scardifield, both silver-screen handsome, are renewable resources; the former, in particular, makes his Christopher Sly/Petruchio duties a star turn.

When the same two actors show up in Twelfth Night as, respectively, the grieving Olivia and her bibulous suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek, there's no question that they can do anything asked of them. The same is undeniably true of their colleagues. Whether the plot is Petruchio taming Kate or Orsino pining for Olivia who pines for Viola who's masquerading as her missing brother Sebastian, there's no first among equals here.

Tony Bell, with his hangdog face and voice, makes Feste in Twelfth Night the perfect wise fool. In that same play, Jason Baughan as Sir Toby Belch pulls off some hilarious drunk scenes, and Bob Barrett is a scream as Malvolio in the wildest yellow, cross-gartered stockings ever. Jon Trenchard's flute-playing Bianca in Shrew is a stitch; then he's a comically bumbling priest in Twelfth Night, where Chris Myles is lovably matter-of-fact as Olivia's maid. Tam Williams, Alasdair Craig, Jack Tarlton, Joe Flynn, Dominic Tighe, and Tom McDonald all contribute generously and creatively. Each actor in the merry band leaves the impression he could handle any of the two plays' roles and that the results would be every bit as memorably diverting.

A word about Michael Pavelka's set, with its movable closets that often function like clown-stuffed circus jalopies. Adaptable for both comedies, the three-sided box is predominantly grey; nonetheless, during The Taming of the Shrew, a muted version of Titian's "Venus and Adonis" often materializes on the upstage wall. In the canvas, it's unclear whether Venus is being carried away by Adonis willingly or by force. The image is there, of course, to underline the attitude towards love's complexities that Shakespeare habitually considers.

Perhaps the greatest Hall & Company achievement in this dual offering is the service it does for the plays. It's impossible to leave the theater without noticing that Shakespeare was obsessively concerned with the difficulty and necessity in life of finding the exact right mate. Although the great Will was writing romantic comedies, he saw and depicted romance as a many-faceted, hardly straightforward enterprise. Hall and his gallant, gallivanting players understand this, and they convey their understanding with great brilliance.