As the eighth production in its “Silent Shakespeare” series, Synetic Theater departs from their traditional dark, intense, and brooding fare and mounts one of William Shakespeare’s lighter, but still substantial, pieces, The Taming of the Shrew. Certainly, much like its previous foray into comedy with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew is likely to be an audience pleaser for several reasons: stellar production values, a unique and modern take on the classical piece with much comedic value, and innovative choreography. Another fundamental reason why this show works can be summarized in with a name, Irina Tsikurishvilli. Synetic’s Resident Choreographer’s (and sometimes cast member) take on the anti-heroine, Katherine (or Kate), is nothing short of spectacular.
Director Paata Tsukurishvilli does a very commendable job in making the classic play accessible and relevant to modern audiences. In a day and age where the tumultuous lives of the Hilton and the Kardashian families of the world get more coverage in the media than raging conflicts overseas, it seems very appropriate to move the setting for Shakespeare’s tale from Italy to “Paduawood” because, after all, the same pressures to be famous, noticed, loved, and wealthy exist in American society. No place is more synonymous with that struggle than glitzy Hollywood. Overall, the show concept is that two “celebrities” with familial bonds (Kate and Bianca) stand in direct contrast to one another in a world of high fashion.
The less-than-perfect Kate, famous for her less-than-appropriate antics against the establishment, is often dressed in black or fiery red and has no desire to do what is expected of her in life, love, or otherwise. She stands in contrast to her sister, Bianca (a very striking Irina Kavsadze), often appearing in vibrant yellow evening wear, who is also the talk of the town for other reasons. Bianca has plenty of potential suitors, including one she loves deeply. The only problem, from Bianca’s perspective, is that their father (Baptista, played by Hector Reynoso) insists that Kate must marry before she can marry. This pits the two girls against one another and leads to financially costly hijinks to ensure Kate marries so that Bianca can marry her true love. Kate meets her match in the form of Petruchio (a very commanding Ryan Sellers), an equally temperamental painter with interesting bohemian fashion choices. Kate’s family pays Petruchio to marry her.
Shrew is a familiar story to most and all of the key plot points are evident in Synetic’s production despite the change in place/time. Like all of the shows in its “Silent Shakespeare” series, the plot points are carefully executed through physical movement, ranging from modern dance, to physical comedy and acrobatics. This show, in particular, offers more variety in choreography than most of Synetic’s recent fare. Intense and often over-the-top facial expressions (used to maximum advantage by Irina Tsukurishvilli) complement the movement to display emotion and help the audience understand what is happening when no words are being uttered.
Of the strong ensemble cast, Irina is most adept at blending the acting with the movement with Sellers coming in a close second. Every moment she has on stage is intense, calculated, and precise whether it involves slapstick comedy, anger, or sadness/joy. When she is on stage, it’s almost impossible to take one’s eyes off of her. Overall, those scenes in which Kate is angrily battling with Petruchio are the most effective in the show. Mr. Sellers has an opportunity to come alive at these moments and the audience witnesses an almost equal acting battle between him and Ms. Tsukurishvilli.
For the most part, the ensemble work, though cohesive, is not as interesting acting-wise as in some of Synetic’s other pieces (King Lear and Carmen come to mind). The ensemble is comprised of very strong movers and they do a very respectful job in bringing Ms. Tsukurishvilli’s modern-infused choreography to life. They are most successful when portraying models at a fashion show in the initial moments of the production, but less effective in playing the other “character” roles in the latter half. The former situation is massively helped by Anastasia R. Simes’ outrageous costumes. They seem appropriate for the runway where the rule “less is more” does not apply. The cast members’ knack for comedy shines through on the runway as they show off these novel fashion statements.
The production values that Paata Tsukurishvilli brings to this piece are consistently first rate. The scenic design (Anastasia R. Simes) is simple, consisting of several white panels which can be used in multiple ways, but never take away from the action. They are used to their utmost advantage throughout the show, from displaying newspaper clippings citing Kate’s most recent forays into the public eye, to serving as canvases for Petruchio’s beautiful paintings that are unveiled near the end of the show. The paintings (courtesy of Anastasia R. Simes’ clearly multi-faceted artistic talent) are exquisite, vibrant, and detailed. Like Clint Herring and Riki K’s interesting projection design, Colin K. Bills’ lighting design brings an added element of artistry to the production. While not as complex as what’s found in other Synetic productions, the minimal touch is appropriate for this piece, which relies less on atmosphere and more on the plot.
Likewise, Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original compositions offer a beat familiar to returning Synetic audiences. The electronic-infused sounds, while interesting, do not seem to match the flavor of this production. That said, the music is certainly unexpected and does offer ambient mood at key moments of the show, particularly the fight scenes. When these production elements are combined with some of Simes’ funny props (including an Etch a Sketch…seriously), the end result is a production which is certainly unconventional. For that reason alone, Synetic should be applauded at a time when many theatres are playing it safe.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
Synetic Theater’s Taming of the Shrew plays through April 22, 2012 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or purchase them online.