By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009
The price is not the only thing that's right in Shakespeare Theatre Company's splendidly sassy revival of "The Taming of the Shrew." Guided smartly back to the stage by a new director, David Muse, the production retains the sizzle of its 2007 incarnation despite -- or perhaps because of -- the inclusion of half a dozen new faces in leading roles.
You're aware, aren't you, that you're invited to see it for a song? The show is the company's Free for All offering, an annual program that has shifted this summer from the outdoor amphitheater at Carter Barron to Shakespeare's flagship theater, Sidney Harman Hall, on F Street NW. At a face value of zilch, a ticket to this rambunctiously comic evening amounts to a consummate best buy. (So get in line early at the box office, which distributes tickets to each day's performance two hours before curtain.)
Along with your money clip, leave home some of your misgivings about the cruder aspects of "Shrew," Shakespeare's story of a man forcing a willful woman into submission -- and thus one of the most troubling plays in the canon. The easy way to read the work is that the wooer, Petruchio, is a brute, while the object of his cruel campaign, Katherina, is a surly witch. But that's the uninteresting way. This version, as slyly conceived by its original director, Rebecca Bayla Taichman, injects a welcome ambiguity into the turbulent courtship, in a manner that compels us to reflect on, among other things, the inscrutable nature of attraction.
Two years ago, the leads were the well-matched Christopher Innvar and Charlayne Woodard. Their replacements this time around, Ian Merrill Peakes and Sabrina LeBeauf, uphold the show's pleasurable standards, with Peakes's roguish turn as an earthily extroverted Petruchio being a special achievement. It's a totally disarming performance, one that distracts you from some of the character's fouler excesses. No doubt about it: This actor, who occupied the thrilling center of Folger Theatre's exemplary "Macbeth" two seasons ago, is a Shakespearean force to be reckoned with.
The company often engages a new director to remount a prior production for the Free for All. Now that its locale has shifted to a more formal space -- and the run lengthened, to 22 performances -- expectations have been raised for a revival that can match the power of the original. Muse, the Shakespeare's associate artistic head and a talented director in his own right, took on the assignment, and the result is a terrifically handled evening, by new and returning actors alike, that hews seamlessly to Taichman's blueprint.
Taichman put her "Shrew" in a cosmetically civilized precinct of present-day Italy; her Padua is fashion-conscious and money-obsessed, a place where appearance counts for just about everything. (Narelle Sissons's knockout of a red-lacquered set places the activity in front of what looks like the revolving doors to a Paduan Neiman Marcus.) The plot is built around a demand by wealthy Baptista Minola (Tom Bloom): that Katherina, his elder daughter, a woman "renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue," be married off before a bevy of suitors can put the moves on the younger daughter, the enticing and outwardly more docile Bianca (Christina Pumariega).
If the notion that a father would sell his daughters to the highest bidders seriously dates the play, Taichman suggests with her contemporary varnish that in the ongoing objectification of women's bodies you find a modern parallel. The set's sprawling billboard of a young woman in a bathing suit implies as much. And the appeal of Bianca to her gallery of wooers -- the lanky Aubrey Deeker is particularly funny as the oiliest swain -- seems destined to be only skin deep.
By contrast, the struggle for control between Petruchio and Katherina, a war of wills that erupts at times in hand-to-hand combat (skillfully choreographed by Rick Sordelet), manages to touch much deeper nerves. Why, ultimately, does she submit, and why does she deliver that humiliating speech at evening's end, in which she instructs womankind to gracefully accept a husband's leadership? I'm not sure this "Shrew" answers all the questions that arise for an audience today. Still, amid the many shallower manifestations of love in the play, the production conjures a Petruchio and Katherina of authentic complexity -- a pair that not only gets a charge out of each other, but also begins to lay the foundation for mutual understanding.
Too many excellent supporting players lend a hand here to acknowledge them all. A few, though, bear special citation, among them Pumariega's alluring Bianca, Bloom's sturdy Baptista, Todd Scofield's dunder-headed Biondello, Bruce Nelson's effete Tranio and Louis Butelli's rubber-faced Grumio. The gorgeousness of Miranda Hoffman's costumes should not escape mention, either. It all makes for a luxe affair -- with zero money down.
The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Muse, based on Rebecca Bayla Taichman's original staging. Lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Daniel Baker and Ryan Rumery; original music, the Broken Chord Collective; choreography, Sean Curran. With John Schuman, Nathan Baesel, Drew Eshelman, Erika Rose, John Robert Tillotson. About 2½ hours. Through Sept. 12 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.