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Synetic Theater needed to break out of its black, white, and goth-all-over mold. That’s what Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili must have been thinking when he envisioned Paduawood, the glam-rock Candy Land where he’s set The Taming of the Shrew. The eighth installment of the company’s Silent Shakespeare series opens with a parade of characters you might meet if the Venice Beach boardwalk intersected with Wilshire Boulevard. Rastafarians strum guitars and mimes charade while paparazzi stalk women wearing sunglasses and nose-job Band-Aids.
Into the faux-California scrum strides Hector Reynoso as Baptista, styled here as a famous fashion designer clad in bandana biker chic. He’s flanked by his daughters, Katherina (Irina Tsikurishvilli) and Bianca (Irina Kavsadze). Baptista and Bianca obviously enjoy vamping, but Kate has a bad habit of breaking the cameras. In the first of many storytelling tricks, images of mock tabloids are projected on set pieces at the rear of the stage. As headlines like “Scandal!” and “Paduawood Bad Girl Strikes Again!” flash rapid-fire, the central conceit starts to click. In this Shrew, Kate is kinda like a Kardashian sister, but with a trenchant sense of humor and a terrible temper. It’s brilliant. And so, pretty much, is nearly every moment in this show.
Credit the Tsikurishvillis and costume designer Anastasia Simes, who’ve mined past adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, as well as, um, People magazine. The show feels like a natural progression from the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s also deeply indebted to Clueless, which granted, isn’t a riff on Shakespeare but on Austen. Kavadze’s fashion-forward eyelash-batting routine only works because Alicia Silverstone tried it first.
Bianca is a daddy’s girl, and an especially appreciative one when he gifts her yellow-satin couture to walk the red carpets in. And the big event? Not the Oscars, but the annual Victoria’s Secret Angels fashion show. Yes, finally, every Synetic ensemble member gets their wings. The girls have spangled bras; the guys, metallic hot pants.
The nearly nude catwalks alone are nearly worth your entire ticket. But the after-party is also too darn hot, choreographically speaking. Three suitors take turns doing the salsa, the jive, and the Electric Slide with Bianca. But she can’t marry any of them unless Kate finds a husband first. Seeing as no NBA players are available, they instead find a starving artist who seems to view marrying Kate as some sort of performance art. As proof, he shows up with a Dalíesque lobster attached to his crotch. The crustacean’s not in the Shakespeare original, but Petrucio (Ryan Sellers) denying his “sweet Kate” sleep and meat on their wedding night certainly is.
Both Irina Tsikurishvili and Sellers are freakishly good. She choreographed the entire show; he contorts his body any way she asks, and manages to add pop-and-locking to the list of dance styles Synetic actors can ape. But the movement means nothing if the emotion’s not there. And both convince you it is, gradually shifting from abhorrence to red-hot lust. The climactic change of heart takes places in an art studio, and paint must be thrown before Petruchio realizes he’s hasn’t so much tamed the shrew as carefully smoothed out a few rough edges. In traditional stagings of this play—you know, the ones where actors say all the words—even the best productions come to a grinding halt at the end, when Kate delivers her cringe-inducing “I am ashamed that women are so simple” speech. There’s grinding in the finale of the Synetic version too, but it’s the grinding of pelvises at a dance party, DJed by Synetic’s in-house composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze.
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the show is so overstuffed with clever conceits and pop-culture riffs, you nearly forget just how awesome the opening was by the end. Certainly, Paata Tsikurishvili could have pared things down. But that’s no fun. The best antidote might be seeing the show again.