Not that Karen, for all her sexual weaponry, stands a chance in the ring with Fox and Gould. As the former says to the latter, who briefly falls under the spell of the forces of light: “And what if this fucken’ ‘grace’ exists? It’s not for you.” Or, more pointedly: “You’re a fucken’ bought-and-paid-for whore, and you think you’re a ballerina ’cause you work with your legs?” Now that’s the adamantly rat-a-tat David Mamet we can’t resist, and he’s in full swing when Fox and Gould are snapping at each other’s balls and jugulars. Robert Pemberton, as Gould, is a smug, not unsympathetic teddy-bear king of the mountain, particularly effective when patiently, predatorily indulging Karen. But as the more desperate Fox, Gabriel Kuttner presents less a crass, nervous flunky than a passive-aggressive, almost vampiric one. With him across the desk, you half expect that when blood is loosed, the agent will be not a fist but an incisor.
Everyone in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s The Taming of the Shrew (Downstairs at the Garage through November 8) is performing. Set in a contemporary working-class bar, the production begins with pickled tinker Christopher Sly staggering against the jukebox and passing out, whereupon the staff decide to put him to sleep and, when he wakes up, convince him he’s not Joe the Plumber but a Brattle Street patrician. To that end, the owner, waiters, and busboy, in collusion with a troupe of actors who can’t pay their tab, undertake to entertain Sly with a play: The Taming of the Shrew, in an economy-daunted incarnation in which ruffs are set off by jeans.
But it’s not the sexism-once-removed gambit that makes ASP’s the most engaging Shrew to swing fist and phoneme of late. Neither is it Sly’s decision to no longer an auditor but an actor be: bored, the spectator of honor plunges into the role of Petruchio, which he miraculously knows by heart after one or two scenes of fumbling gamely on book. This makes no sense (is Shakespeare’s shrew tamer, machismo swathed in iambic pentameter, inherent in the DNA of every male?), but it does promote a swaggering Benjamin Evett from hung-over wallpaper to the lead. No, what makes this Shrew spark and sizzle, and then grow tender, is the way the famed battle of the sexes between mercenary Petruchio and wildcat Kate is a mutually enjoyable sex game from the get-go. It takes a while for Sarah Newhouse’s turned-on if scrappily bewildered Kate to learn the rules, but she wants to play, even in the initial, enforced sparring — into which she vaults from a gymnastics bar.
Obie-winning director Melia Bensussen sees transformation as the key to Shakespeare’s comedy, and indeed, the characters, as well as the players (many in multiple roles), are all acting as well as acting out — from Sly relaxing into his better if bogus position to suitors pretending to be tutors to servants masquerading as masters to belligerent Kate trying on a new and more civil public self. Bensussen even throws in an additional transformation. The demure Bianca is played as a tall, slinky minx by a man — the graceful Ross Bennett Hurwitz, who brings ASP’s raucous evening of identity flipping and emotional sea changes to an apt conclusion when he removes his smooth flip of a hairdo and sidles up to the bar for a beer.