A viscerally entertaining romp about a grieving woman tortured until she falls in love with her captor, Synetic’s wordless-Shakespeare adaptation of Taming of the Shrew is a quality showcase for the company’s famed high-energy theatrics. First produced in 2012, it returns to the stage with most of the original principal cast, a few updates to the creative team, and the same riot of colors and bodies.
Shrew is something of a hot item of late in DC; Shakespeare Theatre produced a controversial all-male version last year, and last fall Avant Bard premiered Jonelle Walker’s response/adaptation TAME. Productions like those wrestle directly with the question that has dogged the play for decades: can this story be told as anything but a triumph of misogyny? Synetic prefers to sidestep the question, but only gets about halfway there before uncharacteristically stumbling.
In Paata Tsikurishvili’s adaptation, although the Bard’s Padua is updated into a modern Paduawood, California, the basic plot remains intact. (Mr. Tsikurishvili also directed the first production; here, the star, Irina Tsikurishvili, takes the director’s seat.) Mrs. Tsikurishvili’s Katherine is hot-tempered following her mother’s death, upsetting her fashion-mogul dad (Irakli Kavsadze). He is eager to marry off his popstar daughter Bianca (Nutsa Tediashvili), so he offers a large dowry to the man who will first take fiery Katherine off his hands. To get access to Bianca, one of Bianca’s suitors recruits celebrity painter Petruchio (Ryan Sellers) for the Katherine-taming job.
Here, Synetic deviates, but not enough. At this point, halfway through the show’s brisk 90 minutes, we have had a number of the company’s signature stage pieces. Choreographer Zana Gankhuyag has turned Katherine’s tabloid-fodder rages into acrobatic little ballets. A long fashion show sequence has displayed Anastasia Rurikova Simes’ stunningly constructed costumes, which themselves have cheerfully displayed the actors’ carefully curated shapes and physiques. (As with Cirque de Soleil, the revelation of the human body in peak condition is an important, but largely unspoken, part of the company’s popularity.) The set pieces keep coming as the plot moves to the scenes after Katherine’s forced marriage to Petruchio.
The difference here is that, while Synetic is setting up a love story for Katherine and Petruchio, Shakespeare was portraying her debasement. Yes, it is possible to find subtleties in Shakespeare’s verse that allow a romantic interpretation, but Synetic wants to be unequivocal. By show’s end, the pair will be delighted to show off their matching clothes and loving marriage to the paparazzi. This, to say the least, contrasts with the scenes of torment that Synetic was unable to resist turning into showcases for their inimitable style.
Granted, you don’t have to engage with the psychological aspect of Katherine’s torture, or even think of it as torture, so ebullient is the stagecraft. Sure, her wedding dress gets torn to shreds when Petruchio crashes his motorcycle and leaves her to walk the rest of the way, but the scene of her long march is rendered spooky and artistic by Riki Kim’s Hitchcockian video projections. Sure, she is utterly denied food at her nuptial dinner, but the denial is made fantastically comedic with sliding platters and cupcakes on sticks. Sure, Petruchio tempts her with a new dress and then destroys it, but the tailor who brings it also brings along a fantasia of robotic ‘mannequins’ in brightly colored bodysuits.
All this pageantry leaves Mrs. Tsikurishvili free to play Katherine’s starvation as just appetite, and her tribulations as merely funny games. Until, of course, the love story requires her to be finally broken in despair on the floor, so that Petruchio can give her a cute little picnic, at which point she immediately starts smiling and expectantly primping her hair.
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The Taming of the Shrew
closes March 19, 2017
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The ensuing scenes of their courtship’s ups and downs are the most stunning in the show (they are original to Mr. Tsikurishvili’s adaptation). Dancers, clever music, the acting talents of Sellers and Mrs. Tsikurishvili, and buckets of glorious paint are so deftly employed that it is very easy to see how both Petruchio and Katherine turn their hearts toward each other. But it is very hard to reconcile these with any sort of reality of what has happened to Katherine previously.
We can conjure explanations, but all have implications that are disturbing if Synetic intended them to play out unexamined. Perhaps Katherine, to lighten up and fall in love, was just waiting… for someone who would not take her anger seriously? For someone who would overpower her? For someone who would give her wine and roses? Perhaps the scenes of torment have absolutely no lasting effect on her, despite her ending up broken on the floor by their end?
Or perhaps we should not worry about how Katherine goes from literally fighting off Petruchio’s kisses to being in love with him, and simply enjoy each individual set piece for its visual and aural pleasures. That would stand in stark contrast to Synetic’s track record of sensitive, character-driven wordless Shakespeare productions, but it’s pretty easy to do.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili . Directed by Irina Tsikurishvili . Featuring Irina Tsikurishvili, Ryan Sellers, Irakli Kavsadze, Nutsa Tediashvili, Justin J. Bell, Scott S. Turner, Stephen Russell Murray, Zana Gankhuyag, Alex Mills, Janine Baumgardner, Chris Galindo, Katherine Frattini . Stage Manager: Marley Giggey . Choreographer: Zana Gankhuyag . Costume & Set Designer: Anastasia Rurikova Simes . Lighting Designer: Brian Allard . Director of Music: Irakli Kavsadze . Sound Designer & Composer: Konstantine Lortkipanidze . Multimedia Designer: Riki Kim . Properties Master: Kasery Hendricks . Produced by Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.