An ultra-conservative political operative, a left-liberal social media influencer and a bespangled beauty queen are locked in a hotel room.
Sounds like the beginning of a joke.
At least two of the three trapped women have hangovers. The third, the Miss America finalist from Georgia, who gave the other two roofies, kidnapped them, took away their phones (horrors!) and the conservative’s suit pants… insists that they all come together to make a better America.
As Tevye would say, “Sounds crazy, no?”
As hard as it may be to believe, given the preceding description, the play is loosely (VERY loosely) based on/inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Perhaps, in some way, they’re all tamed at the end (and not by a man), but the only obvious link to The Bard’s problematic play is the names of the characters: Katherine (the titular shrew), Bianca (her docile, submissive younger sister) and Patricia (a riff on the macho ‘tamer,’ Petruchio).
In her 2013 creation, “The Taming,” playwright Lauren Gunderson had her heart and mind in the right place. She always does.
Recognized by American Theatre magazine as the most produced living American playwright in 2017 and 2019, Gunderson always writes about women — primarily focusing on figures from history, science and literature.
A number of her works have been produced locally, primarily by female-run theaters. New Village Arts presented “Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” in 2016, and “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” in 2018). Moxie Theatre offered “The Revolutionists” in 2017 and streamed “I and You” in 2021. And Lamb’s Players Theatre (which isn’t solely women-run) produced “Silent Sky” in 2017.
During the pandemic, I also had the ability to stream “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” and “The Catastrophist.”
I’ve found her plays to be information-dense (sometimes issue-driven and didactic) but always intriguing. It’s wonderful that she has rescued many unsung women from the dustbin of male-dominated history, and given them agency.
In the case of “The Taming,” all the characters are fictional — and they bear little resemblance to those of Shakespeare, though this play is the third in Gunderson’s ‘Shakespeare Cycle.’
This time, she’s firmly planted herself in the realm of political power-plays.
Political satire is pretty hard to pull off successfully. Feminist political satire even more so. Then, when it veers over the top into farce, things get even trickier.
Although there was a political divide in America in 2013, it has since become exponentially wider and more intractable. The central premise of the play — the need for compromise and mutual acceptance —seems further out of reach than ever.
Still, Gunderson sticks to her guns.
Not only does she include a scene set in 1787, during the Constitutional Congress, showing the deep rift between North and South at the time (Read: Red vs. Blue now), but in January 2017, on the night of the Presidential inauguration, she made the play free to produce, citing her belief that theater, art and stories have the ability to make lasting change. If only.
Things have only gotten worse since those days, which makes the play harder to swallow, and its optimistic feminist message more elusive than ever.
Okay, okay, we do have a new Black Supreme Court Justice (Katanji Brown Jackson’s name makes it into a voiceover in the Scripps Ranch Theatre production), and we have a female Vice President who’s a Person of Color.
But the country is back to talking about states’ rights and who gets to define ‘equality.’
Still, this play is a plea for civic sanity.
The characters are cartoonish (but the beauty queen’s glitzy, giant-wingspan American Flag cape is faaabulous — and gets its own Design and Build credit in the program, for Jason Orlenko).
This Miss Georgia, destined to become Miss America — and aiming even higher — happens to have a constitutional law degree. Sure, she sings “American the Beautiful” for her talent performance mic check (terrific musical choices throughout by sound designer TJ Fucella), but she wants nothing less than to re-write the Constitution, once she can get her two discordant comadres to see eye to eye
There’s a heavy dose of stubborn, unscrupulous self-righteousness in all three women. And their vastly disparate views of patriotism and democracy make the zaniness beyond unbelievable (especially these dark days).
Still, there are clever lines, insightful and incisive comments (and speechifying), and some food for thought. But it’s not a laugh-fest. Perhaps it would have benefited from more physical comedy, in line with the farcical content.
The SRT production is fast-paced, though the 100 minutes do not fly by, and an intermission seems unnecessary (and has not occurred in other productions), especially since the quick-scene changes (thanks to Alyssa Kane’s inventive set design) are deftly handled.
The many reveals and the general loopiness, unspool slowly; the audience spends a good deal of time not knowing what exactly is going on, including the subtle-but-unexplored intimation of queer attraction among the three.
Under the direction of Marti Gobel, the effort comes off more strident and shrill than wacky, ludicrous and amusingly preposterous.
The three performers acquit themselves well: no-nonsense Katee Drysdale as the driven, hyper-efficient aide of a scummy, philandering far-right Senator she doesn’t respect in the slightest; delightful Sutheshna Mani as Bianca, the inveterate leftie blogger with a cause du jour (right now, it’s the oxymoronically named rodent, the Giant Pygmy PandaShrew); and melodramatic Kylie Young as Katherine, the misguided but well-intentioned Miss Georgia, who also (with the aid of Pam Stompoly-Ericson’s delectable 18th century costumes) takes on George Washington, as well as his demanding wife Martha and a drunk Dolly Madison.
The ”nerd” Madison is an obsession of both Katherine and Patricia; it’s Patricia (Drysdale) who plays him, while Mani (the radical liberal Bianca) becomes the staunch Southern slavery-defender, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina.
That scene is a highlight of the piece, with its true-to-history debates, discussions and … compromises. Alas, the South won the battle over slavery (Madison: “Keep your slaves; just keep them alive”) and the Electoral College. The intention was that the document was malleable, and future generations could massage it at will, despite what today’s Supreme Court originalists might insist.
We’re all too familiar with puppet politicians, extremist views and affairs with interns. These days, it’s hard to embrace or even imagine the play’s insistence on moderation and bipartisanship.
Heaven knows, we could all use a good laugh right about now. I’m just not at all sure that politics is the place to get it.
- “The Taming” runs through May 1 at Scripps Ranch Theatre, in the Legler Benbough Theatre on the campus of Alliant University, 9783 Avenue of Nations
- Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($12-$39) are available at 858-395-0573 or online at scrippsranchtheatre.org
- Running Time: 90 min. (including intermission)
- COVID Protocol: Proof of vaccination and masks are required
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.