From the look and sound of things, at least, Arena Stage is taking a decidedly original slant on "The Taming of the Shrew." Petruchip rides a gleaming motorcycle and Kate's wardrobe is new wave. They have their first spat in a hot tub and their tempestuous courtship is puncutated by the thump thump thump of disco music.
Clearly, this production of Shakespeare's comedy, which opened last night, wants to take account of our times -- the punk hairstyles; the pop music idols; those zany Southern California fashions; everything, in short, that can make living today resemble a cross between a rock concert and a comic book.
For much of the evening, director Douglas C. Wager succeeds in turning Padua into a cool and crazy place. A Prince look-alike and thugs out of "The Godfather" mingle here with cockeyed ease. When a suitor's assets need to be tabulated, a pocket calculator is produced for accuracy's sake. The furniture is plastic. Sunglasses are de rigueur. And those secondary lovers, Bianca and Lucentio, rolling passionately on the white linoleum floor, are momentarily distracted from their lovemaking by a horror film, flickering away on a pastel television set. Nobody reads Interview magazine, but its influence is everywhere.
The approach is lively, amusingly garish and seemingly so in tune with the latest trends that you think Wager might lick Shakespeare's ending, too. Then, all of a sudden, the irreverence and spunk drain right out of the piece and you wonder if you haven't really been watching a resolutely traditional rendering of the play all along.
It isn't just the feminists who've alerted us to the play's big stumbling block, though they've made it virtually impossible to ignore. "The Taming of the Shrew" has always been more disturbing than its knockabout antics would indicate. Here is a comedy in which the strutting, swaggering male brings a headstrong, independent female to her knees by manhandling her, starving her, depriving her of sleep and so brainwashing her that she is willing to say the sun is the moon.
If it's played straight, Kate's final speech of capitulation -- "I am asham'd that women are so simple/ to offer war, when they should kneel for peace/ or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, when they are bound to love, honor and obey" -- is more than a slap in the face of the women's movement. It's a sour, nasty conclusion to an otherwise rousing comedy. And at Arena, that ending throws into question the laughter and levity that have gone before.
Wager and his cast have found all sorts of ways to elucidate outdated Elizabethan mores and to freshen the archaic language. (A long speech about Petruchio's steed applies just as well, it turns out, to a Harley-Davidson.) What they haven't found is an acceptable way out of the play. When it comes time for Kate (Randy Danson) to bow to her master, bow she does. There isn't a hint of irony or anger. No underlying bitterness; no suggestion of latent superiority; no undercurrents that would indicate Kate doesn't fervently subscribe to the notion of a woman's subservience. This Kate is indeed a shrew tamed; Petruchio's machismo has had its way. Or is it his smoldering kiss?
We have, I fear, been led somewhat up a garden path. Either there is more to the performances than I detect, or else all of the evening's invention has gone into transforming the look, not the substance, of the play.
The acting is largely in the zap-powie tradition, which values physical exuberance over psychological insight. Danson's Kate is never so feisty as when she finds herself fighting, like a spider suspended over a puddle, to keep Petruchio from dousing her in the hot tub. Petruchio (Casey Biggs) tears around the stage -- popping his muscles, preening and generally assuming a tough-guy exterior that can't entirely his basic ingenuousness. He's the most angelic of Hell's Angels. But the vigor of their clashes produces more bruises than enlightenment.
Some of the attempts to find contemporary counterparts to Shakespeare's characters are patently forced. Lawrence Redmond's flamboyantly gay tailor is a cheap bid for laughs. Robert W. Westenberg's Princely airs as Hortensio quickly lose their novelty, and I can't begin to tell you what John Leonard is up to as Tranio, unless it's basic fidgeting.
On the other hand, Mark Hammer comes through with one of his more savory characterizations -- the servant Grumio, as a punch-drunk prizefighter with a cauliflower brain. Heather Ehlers plays Bianca as a delicious Hollywood blood, whose IQ is far and away the least of her measurements, Unlike her sister Kate, sweet Bianca doesn't lack for suitors. Easily the most entertaining is Terrence Currier, as the stooped and elderly Gremio. He really should be in a rest home. He's always dozing off in full company. But his legs haven't capitulated to age they operate on fast forward. Currier's lecherous skedaddling is commedia dell'artful.
That helps make for a speedy, splashy evening. But it doesn't deal with the heart of the matter -- which is Kate buckling under. This flaky, freewheeling production promises to examine the battle of the sexes in the neon light of our times. Curious that it should end up in the same old sexist bind.
The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Sets, Adrianne Lobel; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Paul Gallo. With Henry Strozier, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Casey Biggs, Terrence Currier; Robert W. Westenberg, John Leonard, Mark Hammer, Richard Dix, Randy Danson, Heather Ehlers. At Arena Stage through June 29.