REVIEW: Colorado Shakespeare Festival drags “The Taming of the Shrew” into the 21st century by way of costumes, revelry

Set in the swing era right after World War II, the hootenanny in this rendition of "The Shrew" is underpinned by Benny Goodman tunes, a bubble machine and the general aura of Baz Luhrmann's “The Great Gatsby.”

Leopard-print chaps, white pleather shoes and a purple suit that would make Iceberg Slim turn green are antithetical to a production penned by The Bard, right?

Not according to costume designer Meghan Anderson Doyle and this year’s take on “The Taming of the Shrew” at the 60th annual Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder.

Those madcap components — plus a few feathers and a massive, velveteen hat — make up just one of the many captivating get-ups featured in the CSF’s newest take on “Shrew.” 

Directed by Christopher DuVal, the show at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre provides a series of similarly modern winks at a tired, if not slightly offensive tale. It’s no secret that “Shrew” is plagued with waves of sexism and misogyny, the likes of which yield some squinty eyes and clenched jaws in 2017. But DuVal’s stellar cast coupled with scenic designer Caitlin Ayer’s stage set in New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood in the 1940s manage to tease and twist the show into the 21st century. And while any original reading of the Bard’s text will always be in some way chained to an antiquated time and hackneyed ideals, this latest staging at the Mary Rippon largely succeeds in creating something special.

The plot is classically Shakespearean and classically difficult to distill into a few lines of prose. It’s a love story — albeit a sadistic one at best — that follows two sisters, their controlling father, Baptista, and a never-ending carousel of gentleman callers. The elder daughter, Katherina (Shelly Gaza), is a brash minx who verbally and sometimes physically crucifies those around her, while the younger sibling, Bianca (Rachel Turner), is a well-behaved bombshell always in the eye of wealthy suitors. Big sister Kate eventually meets her match when Petruchio (Scott Coopwood) asks for her hand in marriage and goes tit-for-tat with her hotheaded antics. After much deception and trickery, the younger Bianca finds herself with Lucentio, one of her swains played by Christopher Joel Onken. Barring some of the stickier details regarding how the two women are treated throughout the show, it all ends well with an expected dose of revelry and cheer. (Except in this rendition, set in the swing era right after World War II, that hootenanny is underpinned by Benny Goodman tunes, a bubble machine and the general aura of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.”)

Backers of the Colorado Shakespeare festival have made a habit of transmuting Ol’ Bill’s characters to more inviting locales in recent years, from 2014’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which was thrust into a Catskills resort in the 1960s, to last year’s “A Comedy of Errors” set in 1930s Paris. And although this production’s home base in post-WWII New York City feels a bit more like an afterthought by the end, it’s still a welcome departure from the umpteen scenic takes on the city of “fill-in-the-blank-with-charming-Mediterranean-town.”

At its core, “Shrew” is a comedy, and DuVal and his CSF team spotlight that notion with slightly modern, slightly slapstick aplomb. Just enough artistic curveballs from the cast and crew alike greatly buoy the drama toward a more digestible conclusion. Serving up a bulk of the yuks this time around, Matthew Schneck as the bumbling Grumio is a laugh-out-loud foil to Coopwood’s bloated braggadocio; the Curly to his Mo.

Both Coopwood and Gaza shine as the simmering psychopaths Petruchio and Kate — he as the toothpick-chewing ham and she as the brazen vixen desperate to unshackle herself from pesky expectations. Tony Ryan’s stammering Tranio provides yet another dose of comic gumption and Sam Sandoe as the pining old Gremio backs him up with precision.

In the end, this rendition of “Shrew” is not a scholarly exegesis of one of Shakespeare’s more produced works, but the production makes for a hooting and hollering evening of summer theater. Mid-scene applause breaks aren’t exactly what Joe Six-pack-of-locally-sourced-Boulder-kombucha likely associates with many a “Shakesperience”  — but they happened at a recent Thursday night performance and they were warranted.

Wade through the 16th century moral morass, and you’ll uncover a highly entertaining night of dramedy, one complete with finger-guns, no shortage of phallic innuendo and one of the best venues in the Mountain West. But, really, you just need to catch a glimpse of that purple suit.

4 out of 5 stars

“The Taming of the Shrew”

 Playing now through Aug. 13. Showtimes and dates vary. For more information, call 303-492-8008 or visit cupresents.org.