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There's a good reason that Lauren Gunderson has been first or second on the annual list of most-produced playwright in the US for the last half-dozen years. She takes on significant social and political themes with laugh-out-loud humor, highly original premises, and vividly engaging characters.
In her 2013 play, The Taming, Gunderson goes after the ever-widening divide of partisan politics in America, giving equal censure to excesses on both sides while offering a seemingly far-fetched but fervently hopeful suggestion for a meaningful reset. The Justice Theater Project's production, with three impressive actors, fast-paced direction, and clever technical designs, is hilarious entertainment that stealthily plants renewed faith in our country's ability to rise above divisive conflicts.
Gunderson sets up a satirical fantasy in which Katherine, a Miss America pageant finalist from Georgia, at first seems an overly-enthusiastic, flag-waving patriot as she rehearses for her final competition appearances. But that notion is soon overturned when it's discovered she's drugged two women and locked them in a hotel room. The women turn out to be polar opposites politically. Bianca is an ambitious, liberal blogger ready to expose a Republican senator's dalliance with an intern to derail his bill wiping out an endangered species of shrew. Patricia is the senator's long-time aide who has been instrumental in shaping the bill and is counting on its passage as a stepping stone for her career.
Katherine knows the two women are both fiercely committed to their country and wants to harness their commitment to help her rewrite the US Constitution – as her talent in the pageant competition. (Katherine, by the way, has a degree in constitutional law). But before she can accomplish that goal, she must get Bianca and Patricia to see beyond their political divide and promise to help her.
It's not an easy task, what with Bianca and Patricia's constant bickering, name-calling, and angry threats. In desperation, Katherine sprays them with ether and they all are suddenly swept back to 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. Each takes on the persona of a participant: Katherine as George Washington, Bianca as South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney, and Patricia as Virginia delegate James Madison. Because Bianca and Patricia are inhabiting men who held opposite viewpoints from their present-day stances, it forces them to examine their beliefs and also to recognize the painful compromises made to get the Constitution approved.
Gunderson's witty premise covers a lot of actual constitutional history, gets in some pithy digs at the moral fluidity underlying high-toned political stands, and makes a strong case for re-examining the US Constitution in light of circumstances unimagined by the Founding Fathers. As the character names and plot elements suggest, Gunderson took some inspiration from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, along with an overlay of Sartre's No Exit, but with a structure and execution wholly her own. The smartly-wrought script's only blemishes are a too-lengthy scene on the question of slavery at the Constitutional Convention, bogging down the pace, and the inclusion of so much profanity that it distracts from the enjoyment of the proceedings.
Director Jeri Lynn Schulke's tight staging kept the opening night's pacing at a high speed, a whirlwind ride that rarely let up in its raucous physical comedy during the 90-minute one-act. Schulke encouraged outsized characterizations suitable to farce but made sure the performers rounded out their roles with believable doubts and insecurities. She skillfully used all the levels of Derrick Ivey's flag- and bunting-festooned set, created from ladders, trunks, scaffolding and latticed metal towers. Ivey's costume designs furthered the fun with exaggerated styles for the present-day characters and heightened period costumes for the 18th century scenes. Liz Droessler's lighting completed the surreal atmosphere, ranging from clinical brightness to swirling flashes of red, white and blue.
Kirsten Ehlert quickly established her winning, lovable Katherine in the show's opening monologue, a rehearsal of Katherine's Miss America speech. Ehlert perfectly balanced the bright-eyed cheerleader personality with the character's underpinning of sly manipulation and astute understanding of the stakes. Her execution of Katherine's hilarious self-confidence eventually evolved into a moving expression of irrepressible American spirit.
Qualia Holder-Cozart made Bianca recognizable as a super-focused, tightly-wired advocate for all underdogs and progressive causes. She filled the role with smug righteousness and ever-ready combativeness, quick with a caustic putdown. As Charles Pinckney, Holder-Cozart switched personalities adroitly, becoming the adamant Southerner who would not let slavery be rejected by the Constitution.
As Patricia, Heather J. Strickland had the chance to show the most range, first as the stony, dismissive senator's aide, and later as the dual-personality of Patricia as James Madison. Strickland masterfully demonstrated how the character constantly has to fight her present-day knowledge of the way things have worked out with the fragile beginnings of our country's government. Strickland was especially adept at employing facial expressions and body English to express several emotions at once.
The otherwise nigh-perfect performance was marred by an excess of yelling and intense delivery of almost all the dialogue. Although Gunderson suggests keeping the dialogue "fast and furious," too many stretches of the script were unrelentingly shouted, often making important lines unintelligible. The situation was exacerbated in William Peace University's Leggett Theatre because the set is open to the bare brick walls, allowing the reflective surfaces to further intensify the sound.
Nevertheless, the production is highly recommended as a pause for reflection during this particularly divided time in our country. Gunderson's knack for making serious subjects palatable with humor and unusual setups should make it easy for audiences of any political stripe to enjoy The Taming.
The Taming continues through Sunday, November 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.