Encore Michigan

Gunderson’s ‘The Taming’ riffs on The Bard and today’s political division

Review September 18, 2022 David Kiley

TRENTON, MI–There can be little question that those who are politically active, aware and engaged today are barely on speaking terms with those on the opposite side of the political fence. Families have been divided by politics. Friendships have ended. And lawsuits around elections have crammed the court dockets.

Into this  maelstrom, playwright Lauren Gunderson back in 2016 published The Taming,” a riff on Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew that delves into the right-left political split and imagines a farcical scenario in which two people on opposite sides of the aisle might walk in one another’s shoes and visit the Constitutional convention of 1787 as a way of getting back to the original intentions of the framers. Several references to doing away with the electoral college pepper the script. If only. The Taming plays at Open Book Theatre here through October 9.

Krista Schafer Ewbank plays Patricia, a chief of staff for a right-wing Senator who favors the company of young women who are not his wife. She is a doctrinaire Republican who seems closer to the Bush brand than Trump. Bianca, played by Stephanie VanAlstine, is no less fervent in her left-wing beliefs, though as a blogger dependent on downloads and followers, she is also extremely self-interested and motivated to make trouble as a way of maximizing hits, followers and subscribers to her blog. Finally, the Tamer in this troika is Taylor Towers, playing  Katherine, a Miss Georgia contestant in the Miss America contest who wants to rewrite the constitution.

The three are locked in a hotel room thanks to Katherine who first drugs Patricia and Bianca with “roofies,” which results in the two waking in the morning thinking they had consummated their meeting. She gets them again with ether, which induces a dreamy trip back to colonial times and the convention where they start arguing and debating the issues in the Federalist papers.

The Taming plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on for a long time–a 90-minute run time. Sketch comedy, though, is a lot like butter, mayonnaise or cake icing in that you can put too much on a dish before it upsets one’s stomach and appetite. Indeed, Gunderson, who is a prolific and much-produced playwright, has a good, clever idea and good intentions. But, for me, a 90-minute sketch comedy piece is simply too hard to maintain the giggles. It becomes too much icing and not enough cake to be actual satire. It does qualify as farce, especially during the dream sequence going back to James Madison’s time. Though there are some amusing cuts and cogent nods to contemporary culture and truly first-world problems–like the absurdly true feeling of waking up in a hotel room dazed, confused and “phoneless,” the demands of doing first-rate comedy-sketch writing does not seem to be Gunderson’s forte.

Directed by Frannie Shepherd Bates, she does a solid job of managing the material on solid ground. On the back wall of the stage, there is a screen on which doctored images are projected: Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Martha Washington, Dolly Madison are used for well-planned comedic punctuation to what is happening on stage. I’m not sure if that device is in every production, or whether it is the invention of the production team, but it works nicely.

Ms. Towers is a fireball of energy on stage, and dressed in multiple get-ups, from Miss Georgia to George Washington. It doesn’t have to make total sense that she is able to hold Patricia and Bianca in a hotel room phoneless. It’s farce.

There are plenty of laughs in the theatre.  Comedy is not only hard, it is subjective. And many–maybe even most–will find it a riot.  Gunderson is to be commended for taking a whack at the absurdity of today’s political tribes with her take on the subject. But for her name being on the script and the implication that Shakespeare also has a hand in the story, though, (the connections are a bit thin) I am not sure the play would draw so much interest from producers. But here we are, and it’s a good time.

Check it out. Most of the audience guffaws at the premise and fine acting by the three players. And there is a lot of head nodding over the disconnect between today’s political and judicial machinery and what Madison and Hamilton envisioned and hoped for.

It may even inspire a Democrat to call a former friend who identifies with Trump for a peace offering, or a Trumper to reach out with an olive branch to someone who is in favor of student loan forgiveness and calls the 2020 election settled business.

Week of 9/19/2022

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