Where issues of sexual politics are concerned, this production of Shrew unabashedly takes its cue from Lucy Van Pelt’s perpetual duel with Charlie Brown – no matter how many times the offer is extended, nobody ever gets to kick that football. For modern viewers, the text raises the issue over and over – and the present version executes it crisply and energetically, neither apologizing for it nor using stage business to undercut the dialogue. Which isn’t, in the end, an unreasonable choice. An honest rendering of Shakespeare’s text, after all, puts fewer barriers and complications in the way as viewers grapple with the play’s take on marriage and women’s issues, letting the play speak more or less for itself.
While the production nominally retains the play’s Italian setting, the specific rendering gives us a mid-20th century carnival boardwalk, complete with neon, primary-colored signs (“Welcome to Padua”), and a fast-food counter complete with roll-down steel curtain. There’s also an onstage rock band cranking up musical energy, and the performances are similarly tuned – Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is the brunette Bad Girl, while Bianca (Royer Bockus) is the squeaky-voiced blonde. Ted Deasy’s Petruchio mixes more than a bit of Happy Days’ Fonzie with a touch of Elvis and a dash of Evil Knievel, aptly conveying the character’s self-assurance. The show’s one direct nod to modern cultural sensibilities is the casting of African-American actors Wayne T. Carr and Tyrone Wilson as Lucentio and his father Vincentio, the former Bianca’s love interest; the players take just enough note of this to add texture to the play’s own comic potential without relying on undue stereotype. There are a handful of other period-related anomalies, one involving Kentucky Fried Chicken and another involving a wickedly funny dueling-video moment between rival suitors Hortensio and Gremio (I’m fairly sure “Let’s zoom in just a skosh, shall we?” isn’t in the original Shakespeare), but for the most part the atmosphere is solidly grounded.
And it’s really a combination of that atmosphere and an emphasis on plot that drives this production, rather than character chemistry. It isn’t that Deasy and Geisslinger lack chemistry; it’s simply that here, it’s the serial courtship of Kate and Bianca that gets the greatest focus, so that the show is more of an ensemble piece than one often finds in productions of Shrew. You’ll find more thoughtful stagings than this one, but few with greater overall energy or brisker pacing. I don't know that this is a genuinely stellar production, but it's a solid and watchable one.