Terry Byrne, Boston Globe  October 20, 2009|

Actors’ Shakespeare Project 

CAMBRIDGE – As the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of “The Taming of the Shrew’’ opens, a drunk named Christopher Sly stumbles onto the stage and passes out. Everything is topsy-turvy, and the workers in the bar he’s staggered into take advantage of his fuzzy memory to play a trick, dressing him like a noble and then inviting him to join some actors for a play within the play.

This scene is from Shakespeare’s Induction to “The Taming of the Shrew,’’ and director Melia Bensussen’s choice to start with it immediately asks the audience to question what is true and what is pretend. Role-playing and transformation become all jumbled in this frothy production, in which the story of the shrewish Katherine, who is wedded and tamed by the arrogant Petruchio, is only one of many adventurous themes the company explores.

Jason Ries’ barroom setting in the basement of The Garage in Harvard Square, which includes a jukebox, neon signs, and a pool table, helps add to the carnival atmosphere. Shakespeare’s notorious battle of the sexes is on display, but Bensussen places more emphasis on the madcap milieu in which the play-within-the-play takes place. Actors double and triple in roles (“budget cuts,’’ one player explains), erasing any particular expectations for any one character. Bensussen also adds a layer of physical comedy that includes Kate swinging from a horizontal bar, hanging Bianca on a hook with her feet dangling off the ground, and the Marx Brothers’ classic “mirroring’’ routine by two actors dressed exactly alike.

With an ensemble delivering consistently high-energy performances, it’s easy to shift from one reality to another and simply enjoy the world in which this rich, raucous entertainment takes place.

At the center of the chaos is Benjamin Evett as both Christopher Sly and Petruchio. Evett’s transformation from sloppy drunk to demanding husband is a joy to watch. As Sly, he staggers about, looking bewildered as he discovers himself in a suit rather than the ratty jeans he’s used to. He takes a copy of the play that’s handed to him, at first hesitant then quite pleased with himself and at his skill to play such a commanding role. His Petruchio does not come off as an egocentric boor, or a money-hungry nobleman, but a man who finds himself in a particular situation and runs with it. Sarah Newhouse, who takes on the role of the shrewish Kate, comes on strong, but never loses her dignity, even in the play’s final submissive speech.

Bensussen’s other intriguing choice is to play with the Induction and have a boy dress as a Bianca, adding an extra twist to Shakespeare’s subplot of Kate’s beautiful and sought-after younger sister, forced to wait for her older sister to marry before she can. Ross Bennett Hurwitz makes a captivating Bianca, lovely, ladylike, and sweet despite his obvious 5 o’clock shadow.

“The Taming of the Shrew’’ still reinforces the idea that a wife is a man’s property, but in this enchanting production, nothing and no one are quite what they appear to be, which opens us up to endless possibilities.