When The Artist, a wordless homage to old Hollywood glitz and glamour, swept this year’s cinematic awards, we learned that every once in a while silence really is golden. But the innovative minds behind Arlington’s Synetic Theater could have told you that years ago. The Taming of the Shrew, now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, is the groundbreaking company’s eighth installment in its Helen Hayes Award-nabbing “Silent Shakespeare” series—and in this case husband-and-wife director/choreographer team Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, known for their unique brand of physical theatrics, are following Hollywood’s lead, painting the classic Shakespeare romantic comedy in that same alluring Tinseltown glow.
Okay, maybe not exactly the same. The Tsikurishvilis’ vision of Hollywood is a little less George Valentin and a bit more Kim Kardashian, complete with paparazzi flashbulbs, wardrobe malfunctions, and fame-craving starlets and wannabes, but the magnetic pull of energy and ego is just as fierce. Irina Tsikurishvili’s double-duty performance as choreographer and feisty heroine (and/or shrew) Katherine in this production should land her squarely on the A-list, though it’s her character’s adored sister, Bianca (a striking Irina Kavsadze, all legs and teasing sex appeal), that the photographers and admirers flock to in glittering Paduawood (get it? A little much perhaps). Katherine’s unladylike rage results in her own fair share of tabloid headlines, though, which is problematic for the women’s wealthy father, Baptista (Hector Reynosos), reimagined here as a fashion designer. Baptista wants Katherine married off before Bianca and offers a reward to the brave man who can tame his less pleasant daughter. Rebellious Petruchio (Ryan Sellers) accepts the challenge, and the contentious coupling ignites one of Shakespeare’s better-known battles of the sexes.
Without the luxury of Shakespeare's witty banter, Sellers, Tsikurishvili, and the rest of the talented ensemble must rely on physicality, movement, and chemistry to tell the story. And therein lies Synetic's greatest strength. Tsikurishvili's fiery Katherine emanates angst, with a subtle softness underneath; as Petruchio, Sellers is commanding and charismatic. The fresh-faced Scott Brown is endearing and deserving of more stage time as Bianca's suitor, Lucentio; and all the performances come across loud and clear with little more than some grunts, hums, and a fitting original soundtrack by Konstantine Lortkipanidze.
Shrew, with its slapstick potential and colorful characters, seems an appropriate choice for the Synetic treatment, and this production takes full creative advantage of those built-in possibilities--especially the colorful part. The staging incorporates a kind of carnival funhouse aesthetic and sound along with its Hollywood theme, a choice that's lively and fun through most of the show but weighs down some later scenes with trippy art-centric tangents. The action remains engaging throughout its intermission-free run, though when the characters move from Padua to Petruchio's crowded digs, the thematic shift feels a little jarring.
One might assume the average Washington-area theatergoer is familiar with this story--if not Shakespeare's original, then one of its countless retellings (in fact, a playful paint fight in this production is eerily similar to a scene from the 1999 Shrew-inspired rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You)--but even without that frame of literary reference, the tangled tale is, for the most part, easy to follow, not to mention exceedingly entertaining. The gaudy, sequin-and-leather-clad image junkies who populate the stage and the knowing nods to our consumer-driven culture highlight that which is decidedly new-school. This production's insightful interpretation and eye-catching group execution, on the other hand, scream old Hollywood grace.
The Taming of the Shrew plays at the Lansburgh Theatre through April 22. Tickets ($43 to $65) are available through Synetic's website. The show contains some partial nudity and sexual situations and may not be suitable for all ages.