If you've heard a faint whirring sound in the past few days, we've found the source. It's Will Shakespeare spinning in his grave, in the wake of Great Lakes Theater's reimagined The Taming of the Shrew.
This balls-out, imaginative take on the classic comedy is the theatrical equivalent of a roller derby steel-cage death match — featuring rock music, a disco ball, stylized movement, airborne oranges, man-on-woman wrestling, and a household staff decked out in identical black outfits like Robert Palmer's gals in "Addicted to Love."
That 1985 music video is just one of the references to the decade, since the play is set in 1980s Hollywood and not Padua, Italy. Plus, many original words have been replaced with period slang, so that "sirrah" becomes "airhead" and "knave" is replaced with "dweeb."
If you're a Shakespeare purist and find changes to the master's folio totally non-tubular, then you'll just have to get over yourself. Director Tracy Young has managed to stick a high-voltage, 500-megawatt cable up the butt of this old play. The result is a muscular romp that everyone should see once — although, in all honesty, once may be exactly enough.
Some consider this show an anti-feminist diatribe masquerading as light entertainment, starting with the title. And, of course, it is. The cultural view of gender roles has changed markedly over the centuries, yet this play romanticizes the idea of crushing the spirit of a woman so she can become an ideal, obedient wife. In Young's hands, however, the amorous and contentious feelings of men and women are acted out with such rippling physicality, it never seems like an unfair fight.
As feisty Katherine, the eldest daughter of wealthy Baptista, Sara M. Bruner is a spitting, snarling estrogen bomb. And she explodes with such regularity — shooting shrapnel at relatives and bystanders alike — that no one wants to get close. Especially prospective suitors.
Trouble is, she has to marry before her more docile and popular sister Bianca (played by a not-so-prim-and-prissy Kjerstine Rose Anderson). This is when, in a conventional production, the suave and confident Petruchio arrives in a cloud of man-musk, ready to club Kate into submission and drag her off along with a tidy dowry.
But this Petruchio, played with fierce energy and imagination by Jim Lichtscheidl, starts off as a quivering nerd beset by nervous hiccups and a diffident mien. As events progress, Petruchio dons different personalities until he finds the toxic macho mix that renders Kate helpless. And that progression, as both actors play it out, is a joy to behold.
Subplots and ancillary characters abound, generating a lot more fun along with a problem or two. Hortensio, one of Bianca's paramours, disguises himself as Prince (yes, the "artist formerly known as") to teach the young girl music, and Eduardo Placer is a purple people pleaser in the role. Also excellent are John Woodson as Trump-haired Baptista and Reggie Gowland as lovestruck, Madras-bedecked Lucentio.
Indeed, most of the cast finds the perfect pitch of over-the-top acting while still hanging on to the necessary threads of character. One unfortunate exception is Rod Wolfe, who turns Gremio (the older suitor of Bianca) into a grab bag of tics, twitches, and vocal quirks — never pausing long enough to develop a viable character.
Even though the play is always stalked by Kate's final speech, in which she professes her adoration of being ground into the dirt by her man, this staging softens the blow a bit. Having evolved from such a wild-child state, she seems less defeated than just ever-so-slightly domesticated.
Given immense support by Michael Locher's tin beach cabana set design and Rick Martin's evocative (and occasionally neon) lighting scheme, this Shrew shows a fresh way that Shakespeare can be done — and even overdone — just right.