Stage & Dance

Turtleman inspires playwright in 'Shrew' update

At their first meeting, Kate (Synge Maher) and Woodchuck Man (Chris Kateff) have words in Tamed, a Pioneer Playhouse world premiere.
At their first meeting, Kate (Synge Maher) and Woodchuck Man (Chris Kateff) have words in Tamed, a Pioneer Playhouse world premiere. Lexington Herald-Leader

DANVILLE — The Taming of the Shrew with the Turtleman for Petruchio? Is it by Billy Bob Shakespeare?

No, it was New York-based playwright Holly Hepp-Galvan who was commissioned by Pioneer Playhouse to write a modern adaptation of the Shakespearean comedy. When she started bouncing ideas off artistic director Robby Henson, she found she was quickly drawn to reality television as a setting.

"It has all of these elements that are in the play: deception, artifice, who's being earnest," Hepp-Galvan says.

At first, her intention was to make some references to Ernie Brown Jr., the Lebanon critter wrangler who is the star of the Animal Planet show Call of the Wildman and is popularly known as the Turtleman.

But then she realized there were some strong correlations between him and Shrew's leading man, Petruchio, who struggles to court the title shrew, Kate, who is no picnic.

"There are three times in the script they liken Petruchio to an animal tamer," Hepp-Galvan says. So as she started writing Tamed, which opened this week at the Danville theater, she says, "It was scary how easily it fell together."

The play opens in the final weeks of a fictional reality show called Who Wants to Marry a Southern Gentleman? Bianca must choose between Richard Riche and Theodore Boring. But that's the TV show's problem: It's boring. The ratings are falling through the floor, and something need to happen quickly to spice things up.

Enter Bianca's sister, Kate, a combative hip-hop artist. The TV show's producer declares that for their final challenge, Bianca's suitors have to find someone to marry Kate.

Enter Woodchuck Man, a backwoods character who claims he can tame anything. He comes into the picture when a groundhog — "We've made woodchucks much scarier than they actually are," director Lawrence Lesher says — invades the Southern Gentleman studio.

Pioneer Playhouse has a strong connection with the Turtleman and his show: He was depicted in one episode ridding the theater's costume shop of snakes. Brown also has also a presence at the theater, attending last year's season-opener, posing for pictures with people in the audience and granting requests for his signature yell, "Live action!"

But it has been a rough week for the Turtleman in Danville.

On Tuesday, the same day Tamed opened, the city released a report concluding that on a recent episode of Call of the Wildman, a venomous snake was released into a public swimming pool for Brown to catch, and the city parks department had not obtained required permits for filming at the pool.

Despite the public relations kerfuffle, Henson says, the theater stands behind Brown and the play.

"We love our Turtleman," he said. "I can understand if parents are upset about snakes in a public pool. But if that gets tied into 'Is it real? Is it not real?,' grow up."

He and his mother, Playhouse producer Charlotte Henson. say that even if events on Wildman are staged, Brown's animal-catching skills are real and were well-known in the region long before Animal Planet came along.

"He can dive in a pond and catch a turtle, and he has those skills," says Robby Henson, a film director with several features to his credit. "But if you've got a film crew that's around, you've got to set things up."

And Brown does make a great stage character, although Hepp-Galvan says she had to stray from the deep-backwoods persona Brown portrays on TV to make the character work in the Shakespearean context.

As played by actor Chris Kateff, Woodchuck Man is wise to the tricks of TV producers and has a way with words, easily joining in Kate's intricate raps.

Hepp-Galvan says she made Kate, played by Synge Maher, a Northern urban character to create a strong contrast with Woodchuck Man.

And beyond the local connection of the character, Lesher says nothing else really ties the play to Kentucky, and he hopes it will have life beyond its world premiere. He points out that he and numerous actors in the show live in New York the rest of the year.

"I think it can play beyond Danville," he says. "It's a fun story and a universal story, with Taming of the Shrew."



What: World premiere production of Holly Hepp-Galvan's present-day adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

When: Through July 6; dinner 7:30 p.m., show at 8:30.

Where: Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Standford Rd., Danville

Tickets: $16 adults, $9 ages 12 and younger for show only; $28 adults and $15 ages 12 and younger for dinner and show. 1-866-597-5297.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader