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The Macho Institute of Taming: American Reperatory Theatre's Take on Shakespeare's Shrew

By Bence P. Olveczky

It is the nature of theater itself that takes center stage in the American Repertory Theatre's refreshingly original production of Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than aiming for a faithful interpretation of the bard, the two-and-a-half hour performance is a clever and humorous tribute to the art of playing theater.

Referred to as the "battle of the sexes," the play tells the story of how the wild and unrelenting Katharina is tamed by her suitor, the opportunistic chauvinist Petruchio. In the end their relationship is blessed by true love, and we are told that women should "serve, love, and obey."

The play raises issues concerning gender, sexual politics, and the nature of love that have a very different meaning in our post-feminist, politically correct times than they had for Shakespeare. The archaic nature of the play is a serious challenge to artists trying to reinterpret the play for the modern era. Successful interpretations exist, most notably Cole Porter's Broadway musical Kiss me Kate, but they are few and far between.

George Bernard Shaw criticized the play for being "one vile insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last." Realizing that he can not remain faithful to Shakespeare's original intentions, the world-renowned Romanian director Andrei Serban takes the structural framework of the play and its many comic elements and transforms the piece into his personal homage to theater and play-acting.

There are several layers to the play and Serban makes use of them all to contemplate the nature of theater. He makes it ambiguous whether the central story about the taming of Katharina is the dream of a drunk, or a prank played on the sot by a group of huntsmen who hire a theater group to perform for him in his drunken stupor. Are we witnessing a play true to life or just a dream? Where does reality end and the dream start? And what is theater? An illusion of reality or a reality in its own right? No obvious answers are given.

The drunk's dream (or is it reality?) is turned into a fast paced post-modern farce with a multitude of cultural references. A gun-toting Terminator (one of Petruchio's alter egos), biker gangs, paparazzi, and fashion queens are all part of the colorful cast, often making the stage reminiscent of a Halloween party gone awry. There is even a reference to MIT. Hortensio, one of Petruchio's confidants, wears a T-shirt with the MIT logo spelling "Macho Institute of Taming." As it happens, the Institute triumphs again; machismo tames the shrew girl and the girl becomes a loving wife. But to jump the guns and get offended on behalf of feminism would be to miss the point of this wonderful production.

If Shakespeare's text suffers from Serban's interpretation (and it does), it serves to enable the Shakespearean idea of theater as pure entertainment. The director borrows elements from cabaret, circus, and slapstick comedy. The production is an intense roller-coaster ride from scene to scene, where the next laugh is never far away. Serban distances himself from the questionable character development by exaggerating the characters and placing them in cartoon-like settings, beautifully realized by the stage designer Christine Jones.

The production is carried by a strong cast, led by the handsome Don Reilly as the tamer Petruchio (not many girls I know would resist his taming), and Kristin Flanders as the enigmatic Katharina. The acting is playful throughout and seeing the cast sharing in the fun with the audience lends the production a light and unpretentious quality.

To be honest, the production has far less to do with Shakespeare's play than with director Andrei Serban's vision of what theater should be, but I have a distinct feeling that we are better served this way. Maybe because Serban's vision is not far from Shakespeare's own.

The Taming of the Shrew is playing at the American Repertory Theatre (64 Brattle Street, Cambridge) until March 21. Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 7 pm. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Call 547-8300 for more information.