“Shrew” is the eighth in Synetic’s popular and consistently rewarding series of Shakespeare works enacted without words. In his recent encounters with tragedies such as “Antony and Cleopatra” and comedies such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Paata Tsikurishvili has evolved an ever more arresting visual vocabulary for his interpretations. The developing aesthetic culminated in last year’s breathtakingly imagistic “King Lear,” conjured as a kind of desolate studio back lot in some war-strafed Eastern European city.
With “Shrew,” the director makes one of his infrequent forays into warm comedy. (The Synetic canon doesn’t include many offerings in which the capable Colin K. Bills’s final lighting cue illuminates a smile.)
In this instance, it helps that he has streamlined the story, updating it to celebrity- and body-conscious 2011: We’re in a glitzy town called “Paduawood.” By doing this and essentially editing out many of the misogynistic overtones, he’s given the piece a simple, winning cohesiveness.
The show cooks on Irina Tsikurishvili’s portrayal of Katherine, swathed chicly in coal black by set and costume designer Anastasia R. Simes. She’s violently put out here by the constant media onslaught, and the attentions her father, Baptista (a hotshot fashion designer played by Hector Reynoso), lavishes on her younger sister, the dishier Bianca.
Padua as a superficial shrine to external beauty was handled with far more finesse by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in director Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s memorable 2007 modern-dress production. Here, Paata Tsikurishvili makes obvious, tabloid-fodder jokes of the public brawling engaged in by Katherine; sans spoken language, however, the play struggles to communicate how or why we might sympathize with such behavior. (The wide-eyed clown-style physicality of Synetic’s technique runs into trouble whenever it’s applied to subtler types of dramatic irony.)
Still, the permutations of Katherine’s outrage permit this “Shrew” to transform an emotion into powerful, plot-driving action. In terms of movement as an expression of character, too, the show is one of the strongest Synetic has mounted and, courtesy of Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography, one of the dizziest the company has danced. You have no doubt this angry woman’s resolve packs the explosive energy to repel wooers as muscular as Philip Fletcher’s Gremio and Vato Tsikurishvili’s Hortensio. The romancing of Bianca by Scott Brown’s appealingly earnest Lucentio possesses a softer personality, distinguished by the gentler ruse he executes to maximize his face time with her.
Synetic’s “Shrew” most closely follows Shakespeare’s plot in the famous taming scenes, whereby Ryan Sellers’s commanding, physically supple Petruchio tries to quell Katherine’s raging soul through an exhausting process of deprivation. After the amusingly handled, quicksilver marriage of Katherine and Petruchio comes a smartly choreographed banquet scene in which everyone dines heartily, except for Katherine. With fruit and cupcakes suspended temptingly on wires just out of reach before her, the scene comes across in this instance as more mischievous than cruel. As a result, Petruchio seems, on this occasion, less off-puttingly tyrannical.
Visually, “Shrew” expands the company’s appetite for technology, especially movielike effects. On the tilting geometric panels of Simes’s set, projections embroider the narrative, with images of spinning gossip sheets and menacing birds and photos of Katherine, her face contorted madly. Simes uses electric blues, pinks and yellows in her vibrant design palette for the costumes — and a flock’s worth of feathers for the avant-garde runway show of Baptista’s designs.
Color itself has a bravura role in this “Shrew,” for Paata Tsikurishvili gives Sellers’s bare-chested, motorcycle-riding Petruchio another useful attribute: He’s a painter. It’s in both sensual and artistic applications of paint — first in a fight, then on a canvas — that the warring couple discovers their true path to the heart. One wonders whether there are parallels in the collaboration between the Tsikurishvilis themselves: artists who explore love through the turbulent stages of making a play.
The Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets and costumes, Anastasia R. Simes; lighting, Colin K. Bills; music direction, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; multimedia, Clint Herring and Riki K; sound, Irakli Kavsadze. With Alex Mills, Renata Veberyte Loman, Dallas Tolentino, Chris Galindo, Katherine Frattini. About 90 minutes. Through April 22 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.synetictheater.org.