Often, a director's attempts to update Shakespeare lead him or her into a revisionist dead end, cobbled with dubious "contemporary" touches that are never fully integrated into the text. And sometimes, much more rarely, a director's updating takes the upward trajectory of a skyrocket. Geoff Elliott's pyrotechnically funny staging of "The Taming of the Shrew" at A Noise Within falls into the latter category.
Elliott keeps the play's Padua setting. But this is Padua in the 1950s, complete with plenty of bebopping period music. From the opening strains of Dean Martin's "That's Amore" to the closing dance sequence, we realize we are in for a celebration of all things Italian. That backlighted full moon upstage gives a clue to the intended tone. This is a Shakespearean "Moonstruck" with appropriately lunatic performances all around.
Of course, the most crucial turns are those of Kate and Petruchio, Shakespeare's combustible combatants/lovers, played here by Allegra Fulton and Steve Weingartner. They initially seem cast against type, with Petruchio coming across as a comically strutting bantam and Kate as a pinched and sour-faced spinster whose button-down asexuality bodes ill for any believable sexual chemistry between the two. Just wait. Once alone on stage, this Kate and Petruchio take fire, burning up the boards with barely suppressed sexual heat. It's very romantic, very intense -- in short, very Italian.
Weingartner and Fulton's dynamic physicality doesn't stop at the sexual. The two play slapstick as well, and they do so with sublime goofiness. In fact, the entire cast displays the keen timing of a seasoned vaudevillian troupe. As Bianca, Jane Noseworthy strikes the perfect balance between the prim and the sultry, Tom Fitzpatrick's past-his-prime Gremio is hilariously unconscious of just how hideous his cabbage-leaf toupee actually is, and winning Jeremy Rabb, who plays tricky servant Tranio, has a profile straight off an antique Roman coin. To a man, and a woman, the actors give a refresher course in just how funny the Bard can be, given enough invention and whimsy.
And whimsy there is in plenty. A 1950s television plays vintage variety show clips. Petruchio's "steed" is a tandem bicycle with hand-hewn horse's head that looks like a kid's crafts project. Also superb are the design elements, which combine to suggest a Mediterranean springtime. In Soojin Lee's costume designs, the women sport pastel shirtwaist dresses, the better to feel the heat of Ken Booth's sun-drenched lighting on their bare arms. Kurt Boetcher's slightly ramshackle set suggests a postwar Italian back street, and Patrick Hotchkiss' sound sets our toes tapping.
If you enjoy Italian street festivals, you'll get a kick out of this lively entertainment. The actors obviously are, so join the celebration.
'The Taming of the Shrew'
Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: In repertory through May 17. See www.anoisewithin .org for schedule
Price: $40 and $44
Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes