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The Taming of the Shrew

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Editorial Review

A 'Shrew' That's Tamed But Wildly Entertaining

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

The agonized nuptials of Kate and Petruchio can now be re-categorized as a sure-fire blessed event thanks to Shakespeare Theatre Company's smashing new "Taming of the Shrew."

Working with the company for the first time, director Rebecca Bayla Taichman blazes her own dazzling trail with one of the most politically freighted plays in all of Shakespeare. What she confidently unveils in this chic, funny and marvelously acted modern-dress production is a divinely contemporary, off-center comedy that embraces the play's contradictions and shortcomings, its wisdom as well as its absurdity.

"Shrew" is a contemplation here not so much of the war between the sexes as of the peace that can be negotiated when you first come to know yourself -- and in the dicey business of taking on someone else for life, knowing what you're getting into.

This is made possible through the magic of casting. No way could the Kate of such a poised and powerful performer as Charlayne Woodard be anything but a headstrong adversary. And it takes an actor of equal parts manliness, perspicacity and sensitivity -- qualities embodied so fully by Christopher Innvar -- to make of Petruchio the kind of guy whose cruelties can be tolerated in the walk-up to mature love. After all, as this "Shrew" attests, only a real man can wear the dress in the family.

The news out of the eye-catching production, set in an idea of Padua as a latter-day haven for Venetian fashionistas, is in its way as exciting for the company as is the opening this month of Shakespeare's dashing new flagship theater, Sidney Harman Hall. ("Shrew" is in the older space, the Lansburgh.) On Monday, at a gala in honor of the new hall, Artistic Director Michael Kahn described the company as a home for an "American style" of Shakespeare. Although that remains a more nebulous concept than some adherents would have us believe, Taichman's "Shrew" provides new evidence that such a style not only can exist, but also can continue to evolve.

On the lookout for young directors to invigorate the Shakespeare Theatre through its expansionist phase, Kahn's found one. Taichman, whose Washington work has included staging rewarding versions of Sarah Ruhl's "The Clean House" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Woolly Mammoth, possesses a big-canvas canniness so applicable to Shakespeare. (Based on her "Shrew," one wonders what she might do with the Bard's even hotter hot-button piece "The Merchant of Venice.")

And given the supple contributions of a range of cast members, from new hands such as Lisa Birnbaum (playing a babealicious Bianca) to familiar ones like J. Fred Shiffman (as a lecherous fuddy-duddy of a Gremio), Taichman shows sharp antennae for the balancing of comic performances. Allowing Bianca's truer, more strident nature to emerge as she grows ever tipsier at her own wedding is just one of the smart ways Taichman coaxes out illuminating behavior at pivotal moments.

In concert with some equally canny designers -- Narelle Sissons on scenery, Miranda Hoffman on costumes, Robert Wierzel on lighting -- the director keeps her "Shrew" light and lively and distinctly feminine. The floor of Sissons's set looks as if it has been lacquered in red nail polish, and the movable glass structures and set of revolving doors that dominate the stage seem to represent the facade of a trendy Italian department store. Above those hangs a huge billboard on which the body of a shapely young woman, reclining in a bathing suit, is partly visible.

We are in an image-conscious Padua where camera bulbs pop like fireflies and pounding music underscores events as if life were lived on one long red carpet. A notation on the billboard suggests that Kate and Bianca's father, Baptista (Nicholas Hormann), is in the advertising business, a nice irony: In Shakespeare's world, of course, it's a mistake to judge books by their covers. Not only are the natures of polar-opposite Kate and Bianca not what they seem, but the men who woo them (for sex, as well as dowry money) are also in various forms of disguise.

Hoffman knows how important it is for a woman like Bianca to look good. In sweetheart tops and pouffy skirts, she's man-bait for the "Project Runway" era. (And there is something seriously metrosexual about the look and manner of the suitor who ultimately gets the prize, Michael Milligan's swell Lucentio.)

Woodard, meanwhile, makes her first-act entrance in gender-neutral white top and black slacks, a Gap gal lost in a Dior world. No wonder she's mad as hell. As her idealized younger sister poses in a window in sparkly party dress -- literally up on a pedestal -- the men spit out their uninformed bile about Kate, labeling her, among other endearments, a "fiend of hell."

We're not meant to sympathize exclusively with Kate; there is the little matter of the wiry Woodard tying Birnbaum up inside those revolving doors. Of course, as Petruchio's brutishness turns increasingly ugly -- he manhandles and browbeats and even starves her after their wedding -- we can't help but be appalled. Still, Innvar and Woodard inject a dose of ambiguity: In their first scene of roughhousing, a spark has been ignited, and in Woodard's eyes you get the faint flicker of arousal.

Kate's motivation, why she goes from obstinate hellcat to obedient kitten under Petruchio's iron fist, has been probed and pecked at and picked over for centuries. Taichman's "Shrew" is concerned less with argument than resolution.

Kate's trials here seem less physically punishing, more internalized, as if her suffering were on a metaphysical plane. Giving the show a modern, somewhat abstracted setting reinforces this idea. The scene on the road back to Padua, in which Petruchio demands Kate conform to his ridiculous declarations about the time of day it is, plays like a game whose objective is for one person to try to see the world from another's point of view.

This world, fortunately, is filled with scrupulously dependable actors: Todd Scofield as a simple-minded gofer; Bruce Nelson, playing an uppity poseur; and best of all, a slicked-back, mustachioed Aubrey K. Deeker, the Johnny Drama of Petruchio's entourage. And when in this world of mysteries and delights Innvar and Woodard seal their mutual admiration with a kiss, all definitely feels right with it.

Rapidly moving dialogue punctuated by frequent, humorous breakaways into characters' fantasies -- on television, that would be the way "Scrubs" energized the stale sitcom format.

On stage, that would be the way Shakespeare Theatre Company energized the Shakespeare format with "The Taming of the Shrew."

"Scrubs" quick-cut surreal-vignette device seems natural to "Shrew" in Rebecca Bayla Taichman's deft conceptualization -- almost as if the Bard himself penned in bits of rapid-fire glimpses into his characters' imaginations -- and, while purists are sure to furrow their brows at these shenanigans, such visualization evokes plenty of well-earned laughs.

The comedy portrays the courting and transformation of two sisters, Katherine (Charlayne Woodard) and Bianca (Lisa Birnbaum), whose marital fates are linked to a paternal decree.

This modernized script freely goes over-the-top whenever it pleases and often shoots for outright slapstick. Those who think Petruchio (played by the fantastic Christopher Innvar) -- who marries older sister Katherine -- showing up to his ceremony wearing a wedding dress is too much of a break from Shakespeare's intent may disapprove. But the audience's laughter suggests these literalists are in the minority.

Like so many of Shakespeare's works, the language of "The Taming of the Shrew" is packed with not-so-subtle innuendo. Taichman's take doesn't shy away from the naughty verbal play, occasionally hamming it up to a surprising level of raunchiness.

Big acting in general doesn't seem to have been discouraged, either, a choice that makes Louis Buttelli's comically zany portrayal of Petruchio's servant Grumio particularly welcome.

While certainly untraditional -- not that "traditionally Shakespearean" is a known quantity -- Taichman's stylistic adjustments keep this "Shrew" moving quickly, and the laughs coming. In fact, you may have a surreal daydream of your own and imagine Zach Braff himself walking out on-stage.

--Chris Mincher (Express, October 11, 2007)