Undoubtedly, the best thing about OSF production of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" is the sparks between Petruchio (Michael Elich) and his "shrew," Katherina (Vilma Silva).

These two actors have the charisma to draw all eyes when they are onstage &

not a small feat in the looming space of the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. From their first meeting, Elich and Silva convey a tremendous physical and intellectual attraction between them that neither is willing to admit.

It is this very force of personality &

as well as director Kate Buckley's imaginative staging &

that softens the impact from what's actually being said and done in the rest of the play.

When asked at a recent press conference what was her "concept" for this production of "Taming of the Shrew," Kate Buckley responded, "I did the play as written, I didn't look for contemporary interpretations. I took Shakespeare's words and focused on the complexity in the relationship of the main characters."

She also liberally used "Shrew's" roots in Italian Commedia dell'Arte &

the broad action, the stock characters and choreographed ensemble work. So, in this "Shrew," lushly staged as though on a central plaza in Padua, we have the warmth and outrageous action of an Italian farce played against Shakespeare's witty language.

Never mind that Baptista virtually sells his daughters in marriage to the highest bidder or that Kate is deemed a shrew because she is not outwardly submissive to the accepted male hierarchy.

Shakespeare's subtler theme here is that just as Kate is called shrew because of her unprovoked outbursts and antisocial behavior, Petruchio "tames" her by being just as unreasonable and unfeeling in his treatment of her. He, too, abuses his servants. He, too, is unpredictable in his behavior, his reactions. Once wed, he denies her sleep, withholds food and drink, keeps her in travel-stained and damp clothes. It is only when Kate recognizes his "game" and is willing to play it, that there is complicity between them.

Against this, the subplot of the outwardly submissive Bianca and her gaggle of suitors reinforces the notion that things are not always as they appear. The suitors assume disguises as tutors to gain access to the lovely Bianca. The "false" Lucentio now has to come up with a pretend father to vouch for his dowry promise. The masquerading pedant as Lucentio's father rather likes his disguise and is quite annoyed when the real father shows up and challenges him.

The ultimate unraveling of all this subterfuge comes at the very end of the play, at a feast in Baptista's home. Lucentio is now married to his Bianca. Hortensio has married a lusty Widow who pursued him. And, Petruchio arrives home with Kate. The women, who have cattily put down Kate, retire after dinner. More than a little drunk, the men wager on the "obedience" of their new wives to come when called. Neither Bianca nor the Widow show up. When Petruchio calls Kate and she obeys, it is a demonstration of their mutual trust.

Is Kate's speech on submission "for real"? Obviously not. It is Shakespeare's ironic statement on the conventional wisdom of male supremacy and wifely obedience that existed only in theory in a world of arranged marriages. At worst, wifely obedience masked manipulation. At best, a couple developed mutual understanding, respect and support.

Director Buckley has assembled a wonderful comedic cast with Jeffrey King as the sanctimonious Baptista, Sarah Rutan as the pouting Bianca, Danforth Comins as the lovestruck Lucentio, James Edmondson as the aged Gremio and Shad Willingham as the ridiculous Hortensio. The suitors' disguised servants are played by Jeff Cummings and Mark Bedard.

Robin Goodrin Nordli plays Petruchio's much-abused servant, Grumio. It's a bit disconcerting when she plays it with a New Jersey accent out of "The Sopranos," but, hey, it's all in fun.

Richard L. Hay designed the sunny set, David Kay Mickelsen did the lavish costumes, Robert Peterson provided the lighting design and Todd Barton supervised and composed the music.

Sitting through "The Taming of the Shrew" on a warm summer's night in the outdoor theatre &

with sumptuous scenery and gorgeous costumes &

is pure pleasure. Any analysis of the play only comes later. It's hard not to just plain like this "Shrew."