A Thoroughly Modern Willie

Charlayne Woodard as Kate and Christopher Innvar as Petruchio rehearse for the Shakespeare Theatre's
Charlayne Woodard as Kate and Christopher Innvar as Petruchio rehearse for the Shakespeare Theatre's "The Taming of the Shrew." (By Louie Palu -- Zuma Press)
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

Sexual abuse, provocatively dressed teenagers, brazenly conspicuous consumption . . . sounds like this morning's headlines. Except that it's vintage Shakespeare, and it's just those issues, prickly as they are, that draw director Rebecca Bayla Taichman, almost against her will, to "The Taming of the Shrew" -- what she calls "this cranky, eerie, weird, crashing, sophisticated, completely terrifying play."

"Read the text closely, and 'Shrew' is scarily modern," Taichman says. "It's about a punishing, violent but ultimately transformative relationship, in which two misfits crash together and not only learn to coexist but somehow find their soul mates. It is truly violent in places, very funny and very uncomfortable, but it clearly speaks to us today."

She pauses. "And part of the answer may be that I do my best work when I'm scared."

"Shrew" (which opens the Shakespeare Theatre's season Tuesday at the Lansburgh Theatre) also fascinates Taichman because the battle between the shrewish Kate (played by Charlayne Woodard) and her perverse suitor, Petruchio (Christopher Innvar), as well as Kate's struggle against an oppressive culture, raises "so many issues without neat explanations." Not only does the play explore a particularly painful form of relationship, it also exposes a pervasive commercialism that is equally contemporary.

"This is an extremely materialistic society," Taichman says. "Marriage is business, not personal; it's all about money, not love." Kate's father, Baptista, is willing to settle large dowries on Kate and her more tractable sister, Bianca, in return for a profitable alliance or a well-placed son-in-law.

Taichman plays up the parallel between the materialism of that culture and the designer-label consumerism of today by setting "Shrew" in something like a high-rent shopping mall. Baptista's mansion has revolving doors; Bianca's portrait as a Vargas girl is billboarded over the door; and the sisters are first seen hoisted onto pedestals in the windows. The costumes are wickedly funny -- a mix of modern and iconic outfits (such as the '50s pin-up dress) and often a little surreal (including a couple of hilarious sight gags).

Hence, Kate's ferocity, Taichman believes, is actually a sort of sanity. The girls are merchandise, and Kate, rebelling against this dehumanization, is both infuriated and heartbroken by her father's willingness to sell her off, and by her sister's acquiescence. Alone among Shakespeare's heroines, Taichman points out, Kate has no companion, no comfort.

(Kate's outsider status is emphasized by the casting of Woodard, who is not only black but only about shoulder-height to the lanky Innvar. The difference in stature adds menace to his bullying but a little humor to their febrile courtship.)

Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn had been looking for a good angle for restaging "Shrew," which the troupe last mounted in 1995; and Taichman, who first directed the play as a graduate student at Yale School of Drama, was still grappling with the text -- and with the subtext.

The war of words between Kate and Petruchio, for instance, which is perhaps equaled only by the barbs of Beatrice and Benedict in "Much Ado About Nothing," shifts subtly through the play. In their first meeting, for instance, Petruchio manages to turn Kate's insults into sexual innuendoes -- though "unwomanly" as she is, she can match him bawd for rude. "Both of these people are brilliant! They turn each other's words around so fast," Taichman says.

Beyond that, the role of speech becomes particularly important to the reinvention of their lives. A crucial moment comes when Petruchio declares the sun to be the moon, only to call Kate a liar when she shrugs and agrees. Eventually she says, "An' if you please to call it a rush candle,/Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me." At that moment, Taichman says, "Kate suddenly understands the power of imagery. She who has been so painfully honest in a deceitful world has learned that she can say one thing and feel another."

For his part, Petruchio, whose early speeches are clever but brusque and reflexively macho, evolves over the course of the play toward a kind of lyricism. And although Petruchio will never entirely renounce his dominance -- in Shakespeare's time that would have been almost heretical, since the Tenth Commandment lists the wife after the house, though before the servants and animals, among "any thing that is thy neighbor's" -- he takes the journey of reinvention with Kate.

"Whatever he puts her through, he endures as well," Taichman says. "If she starves, he starves; if she can't sleep, he doesn't sleep, either. There's a sort of a purification ritual going on. And it's all done with positive reinforcement. After he tears her down, he builds her back up. I think there is something lost in Kate, but at the same time, she does find true love."

The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare Theatre Company 202-547-1122 Tuesday through Nov. 18

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