“The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare’s comedy about the war between the sexes, has had a rough time of it for decades now, ever since the dawn of the feminist revolution. Should it just be played as written, with the cards falling where they will? Or must some way be found to undermine the work’s sexist message?

‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW’
Recommended
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $48 – $88
Info: www.chicagoshakes.comf
Run time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, with one intermission

Director Barbara Gaines and writer Ron West have come up with an inspired solution for their Chicago Shakespeare Theater production: Frame the play as the amateur work of the Columbia Women’s Club, a group of bluestocking women of various ages who are all caught up, in one way or another, in the suffragist movement as it played out in Chicago in 1919. And let the show unfold as a dress rehearsal staged amidst all the Gilded Age splendor of the Club’s grand parlor (the latest masterwork of set designer Kevin Depinet).

Olivia Washington (in gown) plays Bianca, with Tina Glushenko, (from left), E. Faye Butler and Kate Marie Smith in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” | Liz Lauren

But there is more, and it is full of contradictions. To begin with, as is well known, Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by men, as women were forbidden to work on the Elizabethan stage. In addition, many of his plots involved characters exchanging social and sexual identities. And of course it was a woman — Queen Elizabeth I — who held the real power in Shakespeare’s time, and also happened to attend his plays. So by the end of Gaines’ production you might just find yourself wondering: Was “Shrew” Shakespeare’s own subtly subversive satire on the whole matter of women’s oppression by men, and did he mean his wildly over-the-top work (with its always controversial ending) to be taken as commentary on the situation? Or is the suffragette overlay a way of updating the story and suggesting the essential issues endure?

West’s clever framing scenes give us a whole secondary layer of interesting characters with their own set of issues, egos and envy-ridden relationships. And in some cases these women play roles opposite of their “real life” personalities. The result is a show with high-driving energy, exuberance and a playful, if often tense sense of sisterhood, that is mostly great fun. But it also can grow exhausting and a bit repetitive (some judicious trimming could have been done), even if West has laced it all with just enough political references to suggest that certain matters (unequal pay for women, unsavory political alliances and extra-marital affairs and more) are evergreen. Of course some might just yearn for the filter-free Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film battle royal.

That said, the cast of 13 women is top hat, with Crystal Lucas-Perry as Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne, who assumes the role of Petruchio, the fortune-hunter/”shrew tamer” so full of easeful bluster, spot-on male body language, and an aura of entitlement that you never question her gender-shift for a second. She is paired with Alexandra Hendrikson as the fiery and rebellious Katherine, who in “real life,” as Mrs. Louise Harrison, is a young socialite with a blithe sense of privilege and a judgmental and conservative mother (Rita Rehn as the officious chairwoman of the Women’s Club, who is married to a philandering senator).

In the role of Katherine’s younger and only seemingly more docile sister, Bianca, is Olivia Washington, who, ironically enough, learns to stand up for herself as the “real life” Mrs. Emily Ingersoll.

E. Faye Butler plays Baptista, the father determined to marry off Katherine before he gives the okay to one of Bianca’s many questionable suitors. Acting as supremely confident stage manager for the Club’s production is Mrs. Dorothy Mercer, confidently played by Heidi Kettenring, who also easily morphs into Tranio, the whip-smart servant to Lucentio, Bianca’s tutor and suitor. And the very interesting Kate Marie Smith, in “real life” Miss Olivia Twist, a student of philosophy, is just right as Lucentio.

Such stellar actresses as Hollis Resnik, Cindy Gold, Tina Glushenko, Lillian Castillo, Ann James and Faith Servant play the rest of the roles with comic zest, often breaking out into popular songs of the suffrage era (courtesy of witty composer-sound designer David Van Tieghem). And Susan E. Mickey’s colorful costumes deftly differentiate the “real women” from the Shakespearean characters they are portraying.

Is there a message here? Absolutely, and it has the hallmark of Gaines, the tiny powerhouse behind the massive Chicago Shakespeare operation. It is this: Women must get past their petty differences and rivalries, and unite for the greater good. Not a bad message across the board.

Crystal Lucas-Perry as a suffragette in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” | Liz Lauren