When a production of "The Taming of the Shrew" begins with a veiled apology for William Shakespeare's naughty sexism, there's reason to be wary, if not to run screaming from the house. Jonathan Miller, who is the executive producer, director and host of tonight's BBC "Shrew" on PBS, prefaces the play by saying "nowadays the idea of someone setting out to deliberately break a woman's will in order to make her an obedient wife is quite rightly intolerable."
The next logical thing for him to say would seem to be, "Therefore, there will be no performance tonight." Instead Miller rationalizes doing the play at all and then explains his approach basically as an avoidance of two ills. Neither a "vulgar" romp -- the kind of wrestling match staged a few years ago (and adapted for public TV) by a San Francisco troupe, one assumes -- nor as a "prize exhibit of male chauvinist atrocity."
Instead, tonight's version, at 8 on Channel 26, offers an Elizabethan view of marriage from a time when people reveled in obedience to authority figures. All Miller's mumbo jumbo out of the way, the play begins, with John Cleese (of "Monty Python" and the much-mourned "Fawlty Towers") engagingly changing Petruchio from the usual bellowing blowhard into a proudly pedantic, wily, worldly man with a knack for sizing up situations and following through on his own prescriptions.
The warfare is mainly psychological between him and Sarah Badel's Katherine, a highly enigmatic figure who proves not so much troublesome as intensely proud of herself and her sex. Scenes between the two do bring something new, if not something inarguably correct, to the play; they make an unspoken bond from early on to go through the sexual roles assigned them even while quietly admiring each other's individuality.
Unfortunately, most of the other scenes, while beautifully lit and artfully designed, tend toward antic dullness. Miller in his director's hat chose often to hold a single shot for long, long minutes; characters come forward to the camera to make their speeches, then recede into the background to be replaced by others. It's kind of a Macy's window approach, and not a particularly telegenic one. By the time it is over and the cast joins for a hymn before curtain, Miller's misgivings about the play seem to have bogged the whole thing down in futility, and one may think of the hymn, "Would that it were 'Wunderbar.'"