ASPEN - Last summer, at a cast party for the members of the local Hudson Reed Ensemble who had just put on a production of Shakespeare's "Richard III," Kent Reed, the company's director, identified the next Shakespeare play the group would present. The announcement was as much of a surprise to the man who made it as it was to the assembled actors.
"It hadn't been on my mind. But somehow it came into my mind to announce, 'OK, next year we're going to do 'The Taming of the Shrew,' to 50 people," Reed said.
Over the next few months, a few more ideas popped into Reed's head, equally unbidden. There was the notion of setting his "Taming of the Shrew" in the Old West; and then later on, the inspiration to turn the original characters into iconic cowboys and cowgirls from classic screen Westerns: Lone Ranger, Miss Kitty from "Gunsmoke," Hoss from "Bonanza," a generic Clint Eastwood type. From there, Reed got the idea to add a few country music numbers, and some line dancing, into his production.
For the most part, Reed was comfortable with the direction his ideas were taking. Populating Shakespeare's comedy with recognizable characters from Westerns, while slightly goofy, was better than the alternatives: "What are we going to call them, Bart and Slim?" Reed said. But at one point, he began to second-guess himself.
"I thought, I don't know - a Western? Is that too over the top? Too weird?" Reed said.
Apparently, it wasn't. Or if it was very weird, at least he wasn't the only weirdo. A friend sent Reed a copy of a review of a Western-themed "Taming of the Shrew" that Joseph Papp, the legendary founder of New York's Public Theater, presented in Central Park, in 1990. "The review from The New York Times slobbered all over it," Reed noted. Further research turned up the fact that Reed's idea was not so out there; several directors had set "The Taming of the Shrew" in the West.
"That was a comfort to me," Reed said.
At peace with his big-picture decisions, Reed set about putting the production together. He began listening to country music, and came up with a few songs - "Up", and the Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy, Take Me Away" - that fit the theme (and one, "All Shook Up," that didn't, but made it in the play anyway). For his lead actors, Reed already had in mind two ensemble veterans: Charisse Layne, who would play Miss Kitty (or, in Shakespeare's original script, Katherina); and Lee Sullivan as Ranger (recognizable to Shakespeare as Petruchio). He made Kitty's father a saloon owner, and Kitty herself a worker in the saloon - just as she was on TV.
Despite the manipulations of time and place, Shakespeare would understand the action taking place. A father of two daughters is determined that the oldest will be married off first, despite the fact that she is difficult - a shrew. Three men arrive on the scene, all with an eye on the younger daughter (Daisy Mae, in the current production, played by Annie Garrett). A man named Hoss (Gerald DeLisser) talks Ranger, one of Daisy Mae's suitors, into courting Miss Kitty, and Ranger sets his mind to taming the shrew. Meanwhile, Daisy Mae strikes up a romance with Little Joe (Trip Watts).
To Reed, the heart of the story is the contrast drawn between the two relationships. "There's a big difference between young love, which is impetuous, and the older couple, who bring a lot of baggage into it," he said. "Older love isn't the same as young love."
The fact that Reed got to thinking about "Taming of the Shrew" in the first place might have more to do with "Richard III" than with "Taming of the Shrew" itself. "Richard III" is one of Shakespeare's more brutal works, heavy on murder, blood and treachery.
"After 'Richard III,' our goal was to have some fun," Reed said. "I didn't want to follow 'Richard III' with, say, 'Macbeth.' I wanted a comedy."
Reed said that preparing a comedy, as one might expect, leads to a lot more laughs than rehearsing a comedy. But ultimately, what makes the process of putting a show together fun is how smooth things go.
Last year, rehearsals took place in a variety of venues; this year, the city of Aspen donated the Rio Grande Room for the company's use, making the logistical end significantly easier.
But on the day we spoke, Reed showed up sweating and breathing hard, having taken a break from the last-minute task of painting the sets.
"Whether it's comedy or drama, it's all intense," he said, adding that in terms of production, with musical numbers and bigger sets, this was the most ambitious of the Hudson Reed Ensemble's six Shakespeare efforts. "The process of staging something on a very low budget, coordinating schedules - that's tough."
The easier part is the material. Transferring "The Taming of the Shrew" to the Wild West was basically effortless. (The play had previously been re-set in 1940s Baltimore, in Cole Porter's musical "Kiss Me, Kate," and to 1990s suburbia in the film, "10 Things I Hate About You.")
"That's the great thing about Shakespeare - he's so adaptable to different environs and times," said Reed, who, two years ago, put a mild Western spin on "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Reed said that there was nothing about "The Taming of the Shrew" that screamed out for the Old West touch.
But the new setting allowed Reed to add bar fights and shoot-outs to the action. And the relocation to a familiar setting might give the audience some help with Shakespeare's language.
"There's this bugaboo about Shakespeare being hard to understand," Reed said. "But you put his words in a cowboy's mouth, and they make sense."