'Shrew' skewers high society Theater review Center Stage puts a rip-roaring '90s spin on the Shakespeare play.

January 13, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In "The Taming of the Shrew," the hero and heroine, Petruchio and Katharine, get married quickly -- only days after they've met. At Center Stage, director Jackson Phippin has taken his cue from the brevity of that courtship.

He has staged hios modernized Shakespearean comedy with such rip-roaring pacing that the whole kit and caboodle --which includes not one, not two, but three weddings -- is wrapped up in a lickety-split hour and 50 minutes. And a fun hour and 50 minutes it is.

The tone is set in the opening minutes, in which sound designer Mark Bennett introduces the play with a Neapolitan mandolin rendition of the theme from "The Godfather." Then the tone shifts swiftly as a disco beat accompanies a fashion show in which the play's principal female characters parade in haute couture in front of male admirers.

Actually, as designed by Paul Tazewell, the show's costumes are more of a comic commentary on haute couture (you could call it ho-ho couture). Katharine's sweet sister, Bianca, for example, carries a purse covered in magenta feathers. And the pastel, plaid, wool, "ladylike" suit she wears has a slit miniskirt that's so mini it has matching plaid wool panties.

This jab at the high-fashion duds of the rich and famous characterizes much of this irreverent production, particularly since Tazewell has created slightly more sedate garments for the two leads, Katharine and Petruchio, allowing them to stand a bit apart from their more frivolous friends.

Though the look of the production heightens the comedy, the tough task of conveying the suitability of Petruchio and shrewish Kate is its chief achievement. After all, the very notion of "taming a shrew" can be difficult to choke down in these enlightened times.

As the plot has it, Petruchio's marriage to Kate is important for two reasons: one, because she's rich, he's determined "to wive it wealthily," and two, because until Kate is married off, her mother has declared that Bianca cannot wed -- a situation that has Bianca's suitors so frustrated they conspire to find Kate a bridegroom.

Kate Skinner is a tough cookie as Kate. She doesn't so much speak as snarl. In a scene with her sister, she drags Bianca around by her wedding veil. And when she meets James McDonnell's stalwart Petruchio, Kate, who's working out, dons NTC boxing gloves.

Even so, Kate seems somewhat taken with Petruchio, and this glimmer of attraction makes it easier to believe, even after Kate's famed final speech of acquiescence, that their marriage will be more of a partnership than the husband-and-chattel model that prevailed in Shakespeare's time.

The other cast members add to the atmosphere Phippin has created -- one of society so high, the air is almost too thin to breathe. Baltimore native Annie Meisels plays Bianca as a child so spoiled that Thomas McCarthy, as Lucentio, the fun-loving suitor who wins her, will clearly have his hands full. Evalyn Baron is the epitome of the grande dame as Bianca and Kate's mother -- a role Phippin changed from male to female in a smart move to add a more feminist perspective to a play often considered misogynist.

Not all of Phippin's '90s touches work. Bianca's music tutor plays an electronic keyboard instead of a lute, so the comments about having to tune it simply don't make sense. And it takes a moment to get into the rhythm of Shakespeare's poetry after the flashy, hip intro.

But if a director is going to take liberties with one of Shakespeare's plays, "Shrew" is a good one to choose. An early effort, it is not an example of the Bard's best poetry, and Phippin's excisions are scarcely missed.

How effectively does it all work? Well, on my way out, I overheard a husband say to his wife, "I hope you learned your lesson." At that, she promptly swatted him on the backside with her scarf: proof positive that Center Stage has found a measure of equality in this "Taming of the Shrew."

Sassy Shakespeare

What: "The Taming of the Shrew"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and at 1 p.m. on Jan. 24; runs through Feb. 11

Tickets: $10-$37

Call: (410) 332-0033

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