Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" belongs to a convention of comedy that isn't coming back anytime soon.
The figure of the scolding, abusive wife, a reliable source of hilarity on the Elizabethan stage, will never entirely disappear. But plots devised to teach these women subservience have been rendered obsolete by a late-evolving common sense.
As the most famous example of the form, Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" has come under intense journalistic fire in recent seasons. The critiques are justified, if not always as cogently argued as they could be. Shakespeare's gender politics are not our own, but neither is Shakespeare's genius, even at this relatively early phase of the playwright's development.
The play takes for granted the subordinate position of women in Elizabethan society. But it is also discerning of the psychology of its central female character, aware of the nature of role playing in all our relationships and acutely conscious of the way marriage and money go hand in hand.
Revivals, if they don't want to be outdated museum pieces, need a modernizing perspective. But why not simply overhaul the work with a new writer? That's the strategy taken at South Coast Repertory, where Amy Freed's "Shrew!" is having its world premiere under the direction of Art Manke.
On paper, Freed is the right author for a feminist taming of Shakespeare's "Shrew." Adept at madcap pastiche, she had a roaring success last season at SCR with her comedy "The Monster Builder," a zany modern take on Ibsen's "The Master Builder. Her play "The Beard of Avon," which tackles with farcical heedlessness the controversial question of who wrote Shakespeare's plays, demonstrates her comfort with a 400-year-old rhetorical style.
But Freed's revamp suffers from an excess of intelligence. In balancing a contemporary understanding of Katherina (renamed Katherine here) with an appreciation of the original play containing her, "Shrew!" never manages to take independent flight.
Comedy thrives more by distortion than by fairness. Freed's humor is too safe and respectful to tell us anything we're not supposed to know. The result might be more humane by today's standards, but earnestness saps the drollery. The laughter simmers yet never reaches a boil.
Shakespeare's preface framing the shrew-taming comedy as a play within a play is reconceived by Freed. Instead of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly, who wakes up as a lord in an elaborate prank that gives way to the performance proper, a female writer dressed as a man is introduced. A playwright trying to find her way in a male profession, she takes over a script from a balding actor from Stratford who is apparently gay and curious about the stuffed codpiece she's wearing.
The play is none other than "The Taming of the Shrew," a popular work but one that hasn't kept up with the times. What follows is the rewrite by this renegade cross-dressing dramatist, who steps away to assume the role of Katherine, a woman far more level-headed than her Shakespearean counterpart.
Susannah Rogers, star of "The Monster Builder," brings her brainy sparkle to her portrayal of the Writer and Katherine. This cool and collected actress has a Helen Hunt-like ability to retain her sanity even when being tossed about in the tumult of romantic farce.
Freed's first moves are fun and funny, but the justification of Katherine's ill-behavior make her seem more of a victim of her family's unfairness than a strong-willed woman who has adopted an aggressive manner to cope with the stupidity around her.
Bianca (Sierra Jolene), Katherine's sister, is turned into a selfish airhead. Baptista (Martin Kildare), Katherine's father who won't allow Bianca to marry until his older daughter somehow finds a husband, is a paternal pimp only concerned with attracting the highest bidder.
Shakespeare's characterizations are undeniably broad, but they seem less dopey than Freed's re-creations. Elijah Alexander's Petruchio might be an exception to this pattern, but his reasonableness as Katherine's undeterrable suitor interferes with the shrew conversion therapy his character half-heartedly carries out after the unlikely marriage.
Freed probably should have allowed herself more liberties. She saddles herself with plot structures and language that she can't decide whether to embrace or kick to the curb. The comedy dithers as a consequence of her ambivalence, and not even Manke's expert directorial hand can quicken the pace.
Veterans such as Peter Frechette (as Hortensio, one of the scheming rivals for Bianca's heart) seem completely lost while Danny Scheie (as Petruchio's mischievous servant, Grumio) delivers a faded copy of the shtick he more successfully fired off in Freed's "You, Nero." Bhama Roget's Biondello, another clown in the mix, would benefit from a year or two of commedia retraining. Brett Ryback's Lucentio appears to have wandered in from some unrelated television drama.
Ralph Funicello's scenic design seems to be repurposing the sets for "Shakespeare in Love," another faux-Elizabethan work this season at SCR. But the fault lies more with the undercooked writing than with the uninspired staging.
Freed finds an inventive way to handle Shakespeare's troublesome ending when Kate, her spirit broken, enjoins the headstrong women around her to gratefully succumb to their husbands. The solution Freed arrives at smacks of Shakespearean complexity, but it doesn't unfortunately redeem her clumsy update.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends April 21
Information: (714) 708-5555 and www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Follow me @charlesmcnulty