The Lantern Theater Company's current production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is so fresh, funny, and full of life that nothing in it offends. Were it not for K.O. DelMarcelle's winking tango choreography and some strong performances, this Shrew would almost bore with its innocent mirth.
In Taming of the Shrew, the Bard's title refers to 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. Katherine particularly torments her demure sister, Bianca (DelMarcelle), and Bianca's suitors. Unfortunately for Bianca, her father, Baptista (Nathan Foley), will not allow her to marry until Katherine is wed.
Enter Petruchio (J Hernandez), a scion from another city, who, for money, pledges to tame Katherine into submission so a cohort of mostly dirty old men can fight over Bianca's hand.
When I put it like that, it seems at least mildly distasteful. Shakespeare's text couches it as a fantasy, a play-within-a-play that director Charles McMahon keeps here in the disjointed form of a vagrant sleeping off his drunk. Otherwise, the "dream" setting of a 1930s Padua dazzles in costumer Mark Mariani's sharp suits and ivory dresses, and sound designer Mark Valenzuela scores it 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, and ad-libbing his way through setting a table.
Hernandez's silver tongue intoxicates (his voice alone would get him cast on Mad Men), charming in every scene as the foil to Liao's mostly underplayed (and mostly diminished) Katherine. The remainder of the cast play double and triple roles to flesh out the subplot of Bianca's suitors, with even this storyline delivered by Ahren Potratz's boyish, amiable portrayal as Lucentio.
At more than 21/2 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.
For all that McMahon adds in fun, he detracts just as much by playing it safe.
The Taming of the Shrew
Performances by the Lantern Theater Company through May 3 at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow.
Tickets: $15 to $39.
Information: 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org