By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
The Lantern's current production of Taming of the Shrew is so fresh, and funny and full of life that nothing in it offends and were it not for KO DelMarcelle's winking choreography and some strong performances, this Shrew would almost bore with its innocent humor.
In Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare's title indicates Katherine (Joanna Liao), a fire-tongued scold (the script refers to her as much worse), whose nasty attitude terrorizes the townsfolk of Padua, in Northern Italy. Catherine particularly torments her demure sister Bianca (DelMarcelle), and Bianca's suitors. Unfortunately for Bianca, her father Baptista (Nathan Foley) will not marry her until Catherine is first wed.
Enter Petruchio (J Hernandez), a scion from another city, who, for money, pledges to tame Katherine into submission so that a cohort of mostly dirty older men can fight over Bianca's hand.
When put like that, the plot seems at least mildly distasteful.
Shakespeare's text couches Petruchio's actions as a play-within-a-play that director Charles McMahon keeps here in disjointed form of a vagrant sleeping off his drunk. But rather than offend, McMahon's "dream" setting of 1930's northern Italy dazzles in costumer Mark Mariani's sharp suits and ivory dresses, which sound designer Mark Valenzuela scores with tango riffs.
Dave Johnson and Bradley Wrenn anchor the Lantern's strong comedic cast with quick slapstick and wry physical comedy. Johnson in particular enlivens every scene, kicking over buckets, bearing the brunt of Katherine's hostility or ad-libbing his way through setting a table.
Hernandez's silver tongue intoxicates (his voice alone would cast him on Mad Men), charming in every scene as the foil to Liao's mostly underplayed (and mostly diminished) shrew. The remainder of the cast play double and triple-roles to flesh out the subplot of Bianca's suitors, with this storyline delivered by Ahren Potratz' boyish, amiable portrayal as Lucentio.
At over two-and-one-half hours, McMahon's direction renders each new scene with buoyancy and humor (Shon Causer's lighting goes a long way in stretching Lance Kniskern's colorful set across multiple venues). But this taming feels too tame, overloading us with laughs so we never feel like cringing while a grown man psychologically (and in some instances physically) manipulates a woman into submission.
And for all that McMahon adds in fun, he detracts just as much by playing it safe.
Taming of the Shrew. Extended through May 3 at St. Stephens Theater, 10th and Ludlow. Tickets: $15 to $39. Information: 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org