Lauren Gunderson’s name on a play promises smart dialogue and sharp social commentary on its subject. The Justice Theater Project’s production of The Taming delivers that combination with lots of humor and satire. Indeed, this exploration of the insanity of American politics feels even more prescient than when it was written in 2013.
As Gunderson notes, she wrote this play “to unpack the deep frustration of a divided and obstructionist patriarchy.” With a passing nod to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, she unpacks and skewers across the political spectrum, even indicting the founding fathers as they fumbled toward creating the Constitution. If it all sounds a bit surreal, it is.
This marvelously funny 90-minute romp, skillfully directed by Jeri Lynn Schulke, is grounded by an all-female trio who rapidly ramp up the farce at a breakneck speed. Katherine, a Miss America pageant finalist, wants to promote an unconventional platform: she believes the US Constitution needs a rewrite. To accomplish this, she solicits assistance from a liberal blogger and the staff handler for a conservative senator. Katherine is well aware her unlikely allies will only find common ground if she locks them in a room together. And that is where the absurdity escalates and pointed barbs hit their mark.
Kirsten Ehlert charms as Miss Georgia. She wields her expected southern belle perkiness like a weapon to circumvent other’s underestimation of her abilities. This woman has a degree in constitutional law and isn’t afraid to use it! Ehlert deftly evokes the confidence of a beauty queen while also establishing her extreme position on how to save America. She also transitions into various 18th-century parts, balancing and infusing each with a distinctive persona, which prompts some of the best broad comic moments of the show.
Heather J. Strickland embodies Patricia, the chief aide of a conservative senator, with the right amount of high-strung, self-confident tightness that accompanies a pressure-filled position. She manipulates language in the same manner she corrals others, to gain power and satisfy her own ambitions. Her physical commitment to this role, as well as later when she finds herself playing the part of James Madison, reflects a more nuanced characterization beyond stereotypes. Her burgeoning realizations are both humorous and poignant at the same time.
As Bianca, Qualia Holder-Cozart effectively captures the liberal blogger archetype. Her character’s over-the-top self-righteousness is born of excessive devotion to a cause, whether it be the panda shrews or toppling a senator for his foibles. Her credible rendering of Charles Pinckney, the South Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention and stalwart supporter of slavery, underscores the dangers of extremist convictions in politics as well as the difficulty and pitfalls of compromise.
The ensemble spin and slam against each other like bumper cars at a state fair. Dialogue is delivered at a heightened volume, sometimes to unrelenting excess, but the fierce language inventively and comically targets the sources of divisiveness in American politics.
The backdrop to the machinations of the group includes what resembles the onset of a political rally. Scaffolding becomes hotel beds, and trunks function as desks. The openness of Derrick Ivey’s set allows for wide-ranging movement, which Schulke takes full advantage of with her blocking. Ivey’s costumes also underscore some of the stereotyped aspects of each character, from Bianca’s ripped jeans to Patricia’s manly pants to Katherine’s goddess-like tunic. His period costumes are also purposefully fun. Elizabeth Grimes Droessler’s lighting design effectively cues scene changes, and Juan Isler’s sound design heightens the sense of frivolity.
Strickland, Ehlert, and Holder-Cozart keenly negotiate the transformations of their characters while not toppling into caricature despite the farcical nature of the plot. At a time when politics can be so disheartening, and even downright depressing, this hilarious display of political partisanship serves up some much needed comic relief.
The Justice Theater Project production of The Taming runs through November 3rd at the Leggett Theatre at William Peace University. For more information visit http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/ or the RDU on Stage Performing Arts Calendar Page.