SHAKING UP Shakespeare: That's the urge behind Arena Stage's post-post-modern "The Taming of the Shrew," am exuberantly irreveremt, confetti-colored, pop pastiche.
Atop Shakespeare's familiar tale of the arduous housebreaking of the harridan Kate by her equally headstrong husband Petruchio, director Douglas C. Wager, his designers and Arena's actors have playfully piled references to The Three Stooges, the Palladium disco, pro wrestling and MTV, and swathed it all in hot Memphis colors and wildly clashing Fiorucci patterns. Shakespeare survives, though he seems somewhat dazed by the experience.
You sense something's up when Richard Bauer wanders on for a prologue with a band of commedia-dressed clowns. Wham! Disco lights flash on, Whitney Houston wails, the clowns shuck down to their Danskins, and we're slammed smack into the story of wealthy Baptista and his two daughters, sweet, lovely Bianca and the infamous virago Kate.
Bianca has loads of suitors, but Daddy won't let her wed till someone takes Kate to the altar. Hungry for Kate's healthy dowry, Petruchio sets to wooing her -- after a fashion -- while Bianca's grateful swains, most of whom have adopted false identities, bumble through their competition for her hand. After a hasty marriage, Petruchio decides on a fight-fire-with-fire therapy for wife Kate, who by play's end is still tough, but tender, too.
Randy Danson's fierce and regal Kate is a fine match for Casey Biggs' cagey, hot- blooded Petruchio, and the two share an erotic tension that begins with their first tantrum- ridden meeting -- splashily set in a hot tub. Other noteworthy performances from an enjoyable cast include Mark Hammer, who plays Petruchio's manservant Grumio as a punchdrunk Brooklyn boxer, and Heather Ehlers, whose Bianca is a combination of Barbie, Sandra Dee and Lolita.
Director Wager concocts some imaginative entr'actes and wittily encrusts the production with pop culture detritus -- Petruchio carries his bride off on a motorcycle; lathered with banana suntan lotion, Bianca watches "Godzilla" on her pink TV; Baptista sizes up rival suitors' assets with a calculator. Though Wager hews closely to Shakespeare's language, he gooses it with tricky schticks, funny accents, extravagant gestures. It's all amusing and mostly successful, though the pace is often a beat slow, Wager sometimes strains for effect, and some of the play's innate humor is overwhelmed by the gimmicks.
Adrianne Lobel designed the vivid, flexible set, a white patio that accommodates the fanciful furnishings that slide on and drop in; and Martin Pakledinaz's entertainingly A-to-Z costumes look like an East Village fashion retrospective.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW -- At Arena Stage through June.