You wouldn't recognize this `Taming of the Shrew'

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Move over, MTV, and make room for that rocker and bopper of all time, Willie and the Shrewettes. William Shakespeare's ``The Taming of the Shrew'' rocked into Arena Stage here recently in a production that looks more like an MTV music video than even Huey Lewis's latest news.

You wouldn't recognize Shakespeare's romantic comedy about Katharina, the wealthy shrew who is wooed, married, and tamed by the fortune hunter Petruchio.

This amazing production is not, like Cole Porter's ``Kiss Me Kate,'' a ``Shrew'' musical but rather a ``Shrew'' with music, or snatches of it -- ``How Will I Know,'' by Whitney Houston, ``Every Breath You Take,'' by the Police, ``Chapel of Love,'' by the Dixie Cups, and a soup,con of Sinatra (``Call Me Irresponsible'') with a few trills of ``Tonight'' from ``West Side Story'' thrown in.

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But even more than the music, there is the look of this production, which might also be called ``The Taming of the D'ecor.'' For the new wave set and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are the stars of this ``Shrew.''

The Arena version blends commedia dell'arte with punk rock style in a vivid but occasionally wigged-out-looking production of the play.

And so, instead of a play set in 16th-century Padua, we have Petruchio (Casey Biggs), sometimes vrooming in on a motorcycle and wearing Hells Angels leather and chains.

Kate's blonde ing'enue sister, Bianca (Heather Ehlers), frolicks in a bikini and pony tail, while Kate herself (Randy Danson) dons costumes ranging from a traditional white satin bridal gown to the gray coveralls of an Indy 500 mechanic.

Kate and Petruchio meet and have their first sparring match in a hot tub done in ``Down and Out in Beverly Hills'' d'ecor.

Obviously this ``Shrew'' is a summer froth version of the play, larky in tone, pell-mell with stage business.

But there's so little emphasis on the wonderful words of Shakespeare that language seems an afterthought.

Kate's long and famous speech, for instance, which includes the lines ``I am ashamed that women are so simple/ To offer war, when they should kneel for peace'' is delivered by this Kate at such a speed that the words blur, as they go by.

Director Douglas Wager must be crowned with both the praise and blame for this innovative production.

It's often fun, and it shakes up the audience from all its staid preconceptions. But it also blunts and, in some scenes, mars the charms of the play.

One of those charms is the fireworks romance between Petruchio and Katharina, as he tames her from a raging virago into the dulcet, loving Kate.

There is little romance and less fire in this ``Shrew,'' where the couple act more like Punch and Judy.

But Wager, who has directed brilliant productions of ``Man and Superman'' and ``Women and Water'' at Arena recently, keeps the audience surprised and laughing most of the way.

For the line ``What dogs are these?'' he even has Petruchio wave some hot dogs in the air.

Wager takes a running jump into the play, cutting Shakespeare's lengthy ``Induction'' to just the final introductory speech.

The scene opens with a commedia dell'arte clutch of clowns in white satin robes with black masks, who suddenly peel down to their rock video costumes as the music pulses and the neon lights flash. Wager maintains the frenetic pace through much of the show.

The casting of the leads is not ideal.

Ms. Danson plays Kate like a puma, full of dangerous energy. While she's effective in the fight scenes, she doesn't really make the transformation to the loving Kate.

The talented Mr. Biggs seems miscast as Petruchio, a role that might better have gone to Robert Westenberg, who plays Hortensio. Biggs doesn't project the swaggering, commanding romanticism that the role demands. His Petruchio is energetic, saturnine, and sometimes awfully funny, but not strong enough. He doesn't so much tame the shrew as curb her.

But Westenberg is wonderful as Hortensio, somewhere between Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger as a punk rock lute player in purple-and-black spangled coif and costume.

Ms. Ehler's Bianca (who can't marry until her older sister Kate does) is delightfully portrayed as a lovely, airy minx, who looks as sweet as Sandra Dee but acts more like Lorelei Lee.

As Kate and Bianca's put-upon father, Henry Strozier is deft, dryly amused, and more subtle than the rest of this flamboyant cast.

The most outrageous of all is John Leonard, who prances on stage as Tranio in a red plaid cloak and beret and who twits the whole play, to the audience's amusement.

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