Even under the most scrupulous care, The Taming of the Shrew presents problems for modern audiences, particularly if they include school groups who might be encountering the Bard for the first time. Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre further raises the stakes on the ultimate pick-up artist rom-com by presenting it Original Practice-style, mostly self-directed (though Carmen Khan is listed as director in the program), with minimal rehearsal, contemporary costumes drawn from the performers' own wardrobes, simple lighting, and an unadorned set.
The trouble with presenting this play without strong directorial guidance is a matter of missing the forest for the trees. The performers may be skilled, but they're primarily invested in their own roles - rightly so - and the opportunity to take a stand on the issues Shakespeare raises can get lost. No matter how much fun it seems along the way, at the end of Shrew, you're left with the story of a man who emotionally abuses a woman into submission, and in 2015, with two women currently vying for the position of leader of the free world, it can be a really tone-deaf choice.
This cast certainly aims to please, and, as individuals, they succeed. Aaron Kirkpatrick's Petruchio, who saunters around the stage with a smirk and all the confidence of a sociopath, makes an even match for Jenna Kuerzi's Katherina, a copperheaded spitfire in black lace stockings and studded motorcycle boots. She's the kind of girl you see smoking on the hood of someone's car outside a 7-Eleven, talking too loud and starting fights, and when her eyes first meet Petruchio's, they recognize, for more than one beat, that they are kindred spirits. This, of course, is what also makes her "taming" so troubling.
The moment she breaks becomes less about acquiescence than insanity, and it has more than a whiff of tragedy, which really puts a dent in the fun. She reacts with confused laughter, and continues as though she is going mad. Their relationship is the stuff of murder-suicides, and, frankly, it's a little tough to watch.
So, instead, enjoy Greg Giovanni's hilarious Gremio, a pompous old fool who carries a walking stick equipped with a bicycle bell trilling his arrival, and a bottle of bourbon strapped to its shaft. Or William LeDent's Tranio and Deaon Griffin-Pressley's Hortensio, as their second-rate romantic maneuvering makes first-rate comedy. Then go home and discuss that Kate/Petruchio conflict, because this production leaves unanswered plenty of the questions it poses.
The Taming of the Shrew
Through Nov. 1 at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St.
Tickets: $20-$35. Information: 215-496-8001 or www.PhillyShakespeare.org