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The Bard arrives at the Barksdale with a wild "Taming of the Shrew."

A Loose "Shrew"


A defining moment in the Barksdale Theatre's production of "Taming of the Shrew" happens in the first scene. The incorrigible Katherina is brawling with her sister Bianca when their father breaks up the fight. As the leather-clad Kate retreats to a neutral corner, she turns and shoots her sister the finger. For those who put Shakespeare at the pinnacle of high culture, it's a paradigm-shattering gesture.

Through this kind of body language, as well as through modern music, contemporary costumes and a few choice turns of phrase, director Richard St. Peter convincingly propels the Bard into the 21st century. "Shrew" may be the hardest of Shakespeare's works to modernize because of its sexist premise. Still, St. Peter effectively milks the characters and situations for loads of bawdy hijinks and riotous pratfalls. If the strain of the effort sometimes shows, that doesn't stop the production from being a rowdy good time and a rousing success.

It succeeds because, in addition to finding countless opportunities for slapstick humor, St. Peter finds a psychological hook to hang the play, one that lessens its sexist sting. Kate, in a riveting portrayal by Tina Frantz, has become shrewish because she is always being unfavorably compared to Bianca (Tate Hanyok). Their father insists that Kate must marry first, so is it any wonder that she grows more irate as Bianca's suitors try to hitch her up? The chosen tamer, Petruchio (Jason Whisman), may torment Kate at first, but finally breaks through to her with the rhetorical question, " the jay more precious than the lark / Because his feathers are more beautiful?" His methods may be mad, but Petruchio proves he will love Kate for her mind and spirit, not just for her dowry or her looks.

St. Peter builds this production around a winning pair. Frantz's spitfire petulance clashes nicely with Whisman's kinetic kookiness. But there is plenty of depth to the talent here as well. As Bianca, Hanyok proves a worthy shrew herself, the more loathsome because she is the more manipulative. Jenny Loraine Warne clowns around commendably as Petruchio's long-suffering servant Grumio. And Stephen Ryan is hilarious as the fey Tranio, his longing leers getting some of the best laughs of the night.

If St. Peter sometimes detours into simple silliness on the road to inspired lunacy, the problem stems from working too hard. In particular, some of the actors in subsidiary roles struggle to give their characters a greater comic presence than the play warrants; the aggressive swagger in Martin Montgomery's cane-wielding portrayal of Gremio is just one example.

Though played on a bare stage, "Shrew" is not without accouterments, most impressive being the costumes designed by Maura Lynch Cravey. Ranging from everyday grunge attire to an elaborate beaded wedding gown, Cravey's costumes place the production firmly in the present but also in a world all its own. While the dynamics in Andrew Timko's sound design were occasionally uneven, the selections (like Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing") were often inspired.

This is definitely not your parent's Shakespeare. It's a bold and boisterous interpretation of one of the Bard's more farcical works. If you're ready for a truly untamed "Shrew," this production is for you.

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