String Theory: Petruchio adjusts Kate?s underwear, attitude.
String Theory: Petruchio adjusts Kate?s underwear, attitude.

It’s an eternal question: How to subdue the Shrew?Shakespeare’s knotty, naughty comedy, as entertaining a romp as ever came out of Avon, nonetheless has that uncomfortable stretch in the second act, between the marriage of convenience and the meeting of the minds.

You know: The bit where down-at-the-heel man’s man Petruchio decides that domesticating his well-dowried but short-tempered bride (“Kate the cursed,” her fellow Paduans like to call her) might require a little starvation therapy, a little sleep deprivation, maybe even a bit of physical “persuasion.” Those tactics might not trouble some D.C. theatergoers (specifically the ones who write the memos at the Justice Department), but more civilized modern-day Shakespeare fans tend to find those scenes a little worrisome.

In fact, the challenge for those who dare stage the Shrew, now perhaps more than ever, is considerable: They’ve got to stay true to the text, to make logical and emotional sense of Katherine’s transformation from unruly scold to docile, supportive partner, and to refrain, by all that’s feminist and holy, from suggesting even once that said transformation is anything other than what the play’s heroine chooses of her own free will. Astonishing that they still call it The Taming of the Shrew, really: As a test of directorial courage, it brings to mind fiercer beasts.

Rebecca Bayla Taichman comes at it not with a chair and a whip, thank heavens, but with a coo and a wink—her modern-dress staging for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, with its paparazzi and its advertising billboards, its shop-window tableaux and its constant subtext of cash-driven compromise, feels knowing and worldly and witty, smart and seductive and even a little rueful now and then. It makes plenty of sense, especially in that notoriously difficult closing scene—the one where the newly biddable Kate, at her sister Bianca’s wedding reception, gives all the other women a kind of Learning Annex lecture on the topic of “Well-Behaved Is Better.” Better yet, Taichman’s production finds a satisfying quantity of heart in a play that can be made to seem merely playful.

Charlayne Woodard makes a pint-sized pit bull of a Kate, and believe it or not, stature does have at least a little to do with how well the characterization works. She’s playing opposite Christopher Innvar’s strapping, hirsute brute of a Petruchio—no, really, they put him in an off-the-shoulder gown for the famous inappropriately-dressed-at-the-wedding scene, and he’s a complete hairball—and the sheer difference in the leads’ mass adds a certain zing to their early interchanges. When Petruchio first comes a-courtin’, there’s a frank electricity as he and Kate size each other up. And there’s a wonderful sense of release later, when she realizes she can trust him after all, that his size can mean shelter if she’s willing to let it.

Noticing that exhale as Woodard allows it to happen, you realize suddenly that the actress’s compact frame and her clenched, wary physicality—those, and the mostly unremarked-on fact that she’s the only African-American among the principals—have together created a vivid picture of a veteran scrapper, a one-of-a kind woman who’s been battling for years to carve out space for herself in a society impatient with nonconformists. Now, quite visibly, this one-of-a-kind woman is startled (and guardedly delighted) to have found herself a one-of-a-kind man.

It’s not just a height differential that leaves room for love to bloom, of course; they’d just be Mutt and Jeff cracking wise up there if Innvar and Woodard weren’t giving nicely nuanced performances, both of them creating characters who seem not just that little bit out of step with those around them but fundamentally more perceptive than the herd—and fired (especially in the latter going) by an increasingly shared sense of mischief.

But then savvy performances abound among Taichman’s cast. Lisa Birnbaum’s Bianca—the pretty, much-sought-after sister who can’t plan her own wedding until Kate’s been safely married off—shows subtle signs of princessy petulance long before the mask slips fully off at that Champagne-soaked wedding reception. J. Fred Shiffman, as one of the hopefuls after Bianca’s hand, wears primness like a fashion statement; Michael Milligan, whose Lucentio eventually wins it, makes “smooth” seem like less of a compliment than ever. And Bruce Nelson, as the aide-de-camp officiously assisting in the campaign, turns in a performance of such contained and subtle fussiness that longtime admirers of his expressively antic style will wonder what Taichman’s been dosing him with—until the plot delivers a short sharp shock, and Nelson lets loose with the reaction he’s been saving up all night.

The showcase for all this admirably assured work is, well, quite literally a showcase, and an eye-popping one too: Narelle Sissons’ set, all gleaming glass and screaming reds, suggests both a set of sleek department-store display windows and the alluringly lit vitrines in which such stores display their pricey wares. Any decent production of the Shrew will drop a hint or two that Bianca’s father knows his child’s worth, but this one comes right out and says it: If the Minola women are the objects of anyone’s affection, the emphasis—at least until Petruchio and Kate come to know each other—is most certainly on the “object.”