Center Stage 'Shrew' is a classic's redo Not so tame: New production places Shakespeare play in '96 with leather, chains and a cherry red motorcycle.

January 07, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Kate dons mountain-climbing gear over her wedding dress. Her bridegroom, Petruchio, has a wardrobe full of Georgio Armani suits. Before the evening ends, nearly everyone shows up in leather and chains.

Call it "The Unleashing of 'The Taming of the Shrew' " -- 1996-style.

This all takes place at Center Stage. The theater that zoomed "Othello" up to the 1950s has now transmogrified Shakespeare's "Shrew" to the 1990s -- complete with cellular phones and a cherry red Yamaha motorcycle.

What is it that seems modern about this early Shakespearean comedy, which has often been labeled misogynistic? For one thing, the nature of the writing. Shakespeare is known for long, introspective soliloquies, but "The Taming of Shrew" is full of short, clipped exchanges.

Another modern-feeling aspect, the production's director, Jackson Phippin, points out, is that this is a comedy with "a plot [that] never quits." The plot deals with something that will undoubtedly strike audiences as extremely up-to-date -- business.

The situation is this: The wealthy Italian Minola family has two daughters of marriageable age. Bianca, the younger, more desirable daughter has swarms of suitors. But the head of the family -- in the text, a man; at Center Stage, a woman (more on that later) -- has declared that Bianca cannot marry before her older, shrewish sister, Katharine. So, Bianca and her suitors have a vested interest in marrying off nasty Kate. When a fellow named Petruchio shows up interested in marrying solely for money, it seems their problems are over.

"When you begin to hear the business that's going on on stage, there are a lot of transactions going on here. A lot of people are putting money on the line, hoping what Petruchio says he can do, he will do. And it's big money. So we placed it in that elite class of people -- the very wealthy," says Phippin, who is directing Shakespeare for the first time.

That elevated social class, in turn, provided the look of the production. Phippin describes the costumes as "very haute couture, very high fashion; clothes that those people that have the money can afford and usually wear once and never wear again."

For costume designer Paul Tazewell, who also designed the clothes for Center Stage's 1950s-period "Othello," Phippin's approach to "Taming of the Shrew" provided a chance to play in the same league as such cutting-edge designers as Gianfranco Ferre and Gianni Versace.

The look, he explains, "is not like British money or even American. It's Italian -- it's showier. There's more of an opulence to it. It has that sensuality to it, that heated quality."

Tazewell's palette includes "a lot of black and gold, a lot of animal prints because they're very popular right now, a lot of hot colors -- hot pink, lime green," he says. "Most of my research was done flipping through European fashion magazines."

The modern costumes also meant that some of the clothing, particularly the men's suits, could be purchased, instead of made from scratch in Center Stage's costume shop. So, in the midst of the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, when most shoppers were looking for a new tie for Uncle Fred, Tazewell was looking for just the right Armani suit for Petruchio to wear in Act I, Scene 2.

The costume designer particularly enjoyed creating clothes for the character of Baptista, the head of the Minola family, a role Phippin has changed from male to female. "She's playing the role as a business woman. That's part of the effort to move it to a contemporary sensibility," the director explains.

Clothing her in fabrics ranging from brocade to leopard prints, designer Tazewell says he sees Baptista as "the grande dame, like a Sophia Loren, where you've got this wonderfully elegant woman who is in total control of the money, her daughters and the people around her. She's a person who has it all, and she knows it."

Phippin has also switched the gender of one other character. Biondello, one of the male servants, has become Biondella -- a female messenger on a bicycle. That bicycle, as well as such props as in-line skates, pagers, cellular phones and a parachute have been incorporated to reinforce the production's updating. This modernization will be evident from the opening scene, when one of Bianca's suitors and his servant show up on the Yamaha motorcycle.

The motorcycle, Tazewell says, "sets up that they're free spirits having fun and that they have the money and leisure to do these kinds of things. It puts a bull's eye right on the people that we're talking about."

Set designer Tony Straiges' scenic concept for the production blends the feeling of an Elizabethan stage with modern touches. The basic, neutral-colored, arched design is decorated with paintings of a male fashion model, a red high-heeled shoe and the three Graces from Botticelli's painting "Primavera."

For a fight scene between Bianca and Kate, the set gains the further accouterments of a punching bag and a set of rings, turning it into a gym.

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