Let’s hear it for the boys — well, the ones who play girls, anyway — in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s tediously idea-saturated “The Taming of the Shrew.” Were it not for Rick Hammerly’s Contessa, Oliver Thornton’s Bianca and, most intriguingly, Maulik Pancholy’s melancholy Katherina, this all-male production would be an affair of truly negligible impact, a mere petri dish for a melange of superfluous experiments.
Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, new to the city’s leading classical company, has so much to say about Shakespeare’s comedy, an adventure in chauvinism that often perplexes and even infuriates modern audiences, that he ends up saying very little. Or maybe all of the elaborate distractions he adds are cover for the fact that he really doesn’t have much to contribute to a more universal understanding of Shakespeare’s exploration of how men treat women, and how women respond.
All is window dressing in this three-hour, five-minute production, which includes a half-hour intermission — here labeled an “intermezzo” — during which the audience is invited onto the stage of Sidney Harman Hall for beverages and to interact with various actors. In the lobbies, the director organizes what the company calls an “artisan market . . . designed to look like the open-air markets of Padua and curated to appeal to savvy, contemporary shoppers.” (It actually looks more like a bunch of tables set up to hawk tchotchkes.)
And to the architecture of the plot itself Iskandar appends a wholly ill-fitting conceit: an assortment of preexisting songs by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, composer of the Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening.” Whereas Sheik’s “Spring” score with Steven Sater served as a vital outlet for the suppressed desires of that show’s characters, the work from Sheik’s songbook here tends simply to reduce Shakespeare’s various subplots to trite pop refrains; “Play your part and never stray,” go the bland words, for example, of a ballad performed by Thornton’s Bianca.
This mishmash of an evening, then, might better be titled “Shrew Awakening.”
Finding exciting new pathways into Shakespeare is of course one of this company’s major missions. A playgoer is gratified to see how far out on a limb Artistic Director Michael Kahn is willing to go. Sometimes, though, a production’s director gets so consumed by his or her own idiosyncratic vision — Iskandar says in the program that this version “is a proxy for my own adolescence” — that some of the more essential elements of the piece (like, say, dramatic coherence) are sacrificed.
Any single one of Iskandar’s inventions might have sufficed here; the revolving, gilded set by Jason Sherwood, a tower of steps framed by a luxurious-looking red curtain, is an eye-catching representation of the world of Paduan wealth in which “Shrew” takes place: It is the voluminous bank accounts of Bianca and Katherina’s father, Baptista (Bernard White), after all, that the myriad suitors covet.
But to compel an audience to absorb all of the above through yet another filter, that of men (in designer Loren Shaw’s vaguely modern dress) portraying the women of this cruel comedy, is to render all a muddle. Among the company’s offerings, this production most immediately brings to mind another overreaching entry, a 2009 “As You Like It” directed by Maria Aitken that tied a pastoral comedy up in impossibly convoluted cinematic knots.
One can readily imagine a far less bedazzled “Shrew,” with men still filling the few female roles, and Pancholy being provided with a far more illuminating platform for his sad, embittered Katherina, a woman physically outshone by her more glamorous and sought-after younger sister. In one of the evening’s best notions, Iskandar and Pancholy play down the cartoonish concept of Katherina as a tantrum-throwing hellcat. The actor — best known as the simpering assistant to Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on NBC’s “30 Rock” — goes for something more rueful.
Mercifully, he doesn’t exaggerate the feminine mannerisms, either, and this actually underlines an aspect of the character that makes her more of an object of compassion. Pancholy gives us a portrait of Katherina as a woman who knows who she is. And through the trials this Katherina is put through by Petruchio (the perfectly adequate Peter Gadiot), it seems, she comes to an even deeper understanding of herself.
Thornton and Hammerly provide similarly well-constructed portrayals. And if that final soliloquy by Katherina remains an eternally disturbing summation of a woman’s lot — the speech in which she declares that a wife owes her husband complete submission and “true obedience” — at least this “Shrew” remains true to the Katherina it has conjured. We sense that passion and love for her are both conciliatory and self-affirming forces.
In the end, though, all the noise produced by this tortured “Shrew” drowns out its own best music.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, with music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Set, Jason Sherwood; costumes, Loren Shaw; lighting, Seth Reiser; sound, Jeremy S. Bloom; music supervision, David Dabbon; music direction, Jody Schum. With Andre De Shields, Telly Leung, Matthew Russell, Tom Story, Gregory Linington, Drew Foster. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Tickets, $44-$118. Through June 26 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.