Synetic Theater takes Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and beautifully reinvents it – not as a “problem play” about women being subjugated to men, but as a love story between two people desperately trying to cast off their masks and rise above the damage of broken trust. It’s effectively rescued from the misogynist dustbin in a rollicking ninety minutes, performed with all the sexy aplomb of an Italian fashion show on acid.
The production also sees the apex of choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili’s skill, where movement is flawlessly integrated to characterization and plot. Allowing not only for the usual expected moments of Synetic athleticism, but also for quiet beauty that’s truly human, this is dance theater at its finest.
Opening with a funeral to pinpoint the heartbreak of two motherless women, director Paata Tsikurishvili frames the story in a helpful way that provides motivation for both sisters’ acting out. While older Katherine (Irina Tsikurishvili) explodes in caustic rage at paparazzi, the younger Bianca (Irina Kavsadze) struts and pouts for the tabloids. Into their hollow lives come two men completely outside the flash – earnest Lucentio (Scott Brown) and rebellious Petruchio (Ryan Sellers).
Oh, there’s also a wink to Victoria’s Secret catwalk shows, a hair-raising motorcycle ride, nude modeling, body paint, and a rubber chicken. Irreverent? Definitely. But always in service to the story.
Shrew‘s “problem play” status is intertwined with its plot – the fiery Katherine is sold to Petruchio by her father so that he can marry off her younger, more pliable sister Bianca. Petruchio breaks her will through starvation and depredation until she’s “tamed,” a state proven by her infamous closing monologue where she proclaims her submission. Modern productions usually play this with a nudge-nudge, as if Petruchio and Katherine are actually equals in on a private joke (notable in theater history, Elizabeth Taylor played it straight in the film she made with Richard Burton, who lauded her choice in his autobiography).
But given the Synetic “Silent Shakespeare” treatment, we don’t have to hear Katherine say those tricky words. Instead, we see an elaborate (and hilarious) pantomime of sexual role-playing, highlighting the give-and-take essential for a couple to survive. Somehow, we understand and forgive that sentiment when it’s expressed physically, more than we can tolerate it verbally. And though the Tsikurishvili’s don’t mince the brutality of Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine, they also make their romantic and sexual attraction believable.
Essential to this success are the performances of Irina Tsikurishvili and Ryan Sellers as Katherine and Petruchio. It’s at times heart-wrenching how clearly they delineate the loneliness inherent in these two rebels. They’re aided by a pitch-perfect ensemble, including Alex Mills as Petruchio’s servant Grumio (rather like a punk sidekick Cupid), Kavsadze and Brown as the sweetly silly lovers, and Vato Tsikurishvili’s acrobatic cut-ups as Hortensio. The entire ensemble gets a turn in the fashion show hijinks which are an uproarious showstopper, highlighting the company’s wit and sass.
Not only are the direction and choreography completely in harmony, the production design is so vibrantly alive it’s almost another character in of itself. Anastasia R. Simes’ set and costume design is brightly erotic, unfolding more color than ever seen in a Synetic production before, until finally revealing a collection of paintings that simply take the audience’s breath away. Colin K. Bills’ lighting design, in tandem with multimedia projections by Clint Herring and Riki K, and the musical score of Konstantine Lortkipanidze, all reinforce a brash and bold tabloid world.
Smashing stereotypes and splattering body paint, Synetic’s Shrew never loses sight of what’s at stake in Shakespeare’s play – can two people reveal their essential selves to each other, both the good and the bad, and still find love? The harmonious, glorious answer here is yes.
Synetic Theater’s production of The Taming of the Shrew performs at the Lansburgh Theatre now through April 22. The Lansburgh Theatre is located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 800-494-8497.