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"The Taming of the Shrew"

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The shakespeare festival program proclaims boldly, "Lust! In Central Park" and, by way of subtitle, The Taming of the Shrew. Both can be contested: The offering is rather removed from Shakespeare's homonymous comedy, with not an iota of lust on display. Any Shrew stands or falls on the principals' sexual chemistry. Yet as Katherina, the wonderful Allison Janney is wrenchingly miscast. Looking most of the time like Janet Reno on a bad-hair day, and acting as sexy, she makes Petruchio's motives seem purely venal. And Jay O. Sanders plays her tamer as a buffoonish circus strongman whose chief ability is absorbing kicks in the groin.

The play can accommodate much knockabout farce, but Mel Shapiro has directed it for nothing but that. He does get laughs, but all of them are imposed from without, burying the greater, intrinsic fun underneath them. For starters, the Christopher Sly framework is beefed up to the point where a marginal nuisance becomes a center-stage star and, in Max Wright's excruciatingly one-note, rancid-voiced performance, unbearable. Likewise, the part of Hortensio, given to that painfully limited actor Reg E. Cathey, is pumped up beyond all proportion to stifling effect.

And what justifies the running gag of four monks who keep coming on dancing and singing in Latin lyrics containing some rather neo-Latin references to Viagra? This and much more horseplay becomes Trojan before long, as wooden as the horse on which Petruchio comes to his wedding. There are good moments from the servants, as played by Mario Cantone, Danyon Davis, and especially Peter Jacobson, but it is a sad production in which, for example, Bianca (Erika Alexander) is a total cipher. At least Tom Mardirosian (Baptista) and MacIntyre Dixon (Gremio) manage to uphold respectable standards.

Marina Draghici's costumes of every imaginable period are excessive; Karl Eigsti's dignified Renaissance set, handsomely lit by Brian MacDevitt, deserves a better production. Mark Bennett's no-holds-barred music has its hit-or-miss charm, and Miss Janney, no longer forced into epileptic tantrums, achieves dignity in the difficult last scene, but by then it is all much ado about nothing -- lowercase, of course.


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