Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The River
The play is set in a cartoonish rendition of the Miss Georgia beauty pageant, with a plotline revolving around the kidnapping of two political operatives by one of the contestants who has more going on than one might guess beneath her blonde tresses, saucer eyes, and ready barrage of "Bless your heart"'s at every opportunity. A time traveling scene takes us to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, with George Washington encouraging James Madison to finish the document, Madison negotiating with South Carolinian Charles Pinckney on the issue of slavery, and cameo appearances by Martha Washington (a harridan) and Dolly Madison (a ditzy Southern belle). It is a giddy affair that plays out like an extended sketch comedy, with numerous pointed jabs, sexual innuendos, and zippy one-liners to fill in the many holes in the plot.
In an opening sequence we meet each of the three main characters: Katherine, the subversive Miss George contestant (bless her heart) performing a manic "America the Beautiful"; Patricia, chief of staff to a super-conservative senator; and Bianca, the liberal blogger whose dual agenda appears to be to bring down the senator and to protect the endangered giant pygmy panda-shrew. The action begins as Patricia and Bianca wake up in a hotel room not knowing how they got there, finding that they are locked in, their phones have been stolen, and Patricia is not wearing pants. What they do know is that they despise each other, taunting one another with the monikers "Blue State" and "Red State."
Enter Katherine, who explains her plot. Inspired by her study of constitutional law (at this point a suspension of disbelief is essential), she traded in her original pageant platformsunglasses for babies, bless their little heartsfor rewriting the United States Constitution. She has sequestered Patricia and Bianca to do the job. When they object, pointing out that they agree on absolutely nothing, Katherine informs them that neither did the original framers of the constitutionhence the time travel episode.
Playwright Gunderson has stated that The Taming was inspired by Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. There are some easy to see parallels. The three principal characters are Katherine (the shrew in Shakespeare's work), Bianca (sister to Shakespeare's Katherine), and Patricia, a distaff take on Shrew's lead male character Petruchio, who tames hot-tempered Katherine. As Patricia is a marginally closeted lesbian, there is some lusty parrying between her and Katherine, which mimics the Shakespeare. Near play's end, Katherine delivers a great parody of the well-known "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech that is a great commentary on dysfunctional government. Beyond that, though, the relationships and issues in the two plays do not align very much. If anyone does the "taming" here, it is Katherine, whose arguments for compromise and revision are aimed at subduing the scathing extremism of left and right.
The entire play, which runs 90 minutes with no intermission, is directed with the exaggerated, winking energy of sketch comedy. It is impossible to take any of the three main characters seriously. For that matter, founding fathers Madison and Pinckney have the demeanor of overzealous college debate opponents, and George Washington conveys the folksy confidence of a white-powder wigged Bill Clinton. Of the players, Nissa Nordland, as the beauty queen, establishes the most engaging character, drawing out the mix of madness and wisdom in her contradictions. Julie Ann Grief as Patricia conveys her cool operator nature, though she struggles with a self-conscious Southern accent. Kelsey Cramer's Bianca is wrapped up in the power of social media, but has not thought through the issues very deeply. My own bias usually favors the liberal in a policy duelnot this time.
The physical production is much in keeping with the comedy sketch nature of the play, with a nondescript hotel room that becomes James Madison's nondescript study. The costumes are well conceived, especially Katherine's ridiculously flouncy pageant gown. Conservative Patricia is coifed to look like Ann Coulter, while Bianca's hairdo brings to mind Jane Fonda in Klute, which I guess endorses her liberal credentials. Between scenes we hear fractured renditions of "America the Beautiful," "The Star Spangled Banner," and "This Land is My Land" that maintain the blend of patriotism and screwball comedy.
Given the daffy irreverence of the whole thing, it comes as a surprise that The Taming delivers a shard of hope to offer some light amid the dismal conduct of our political arena. It counters the commonly held notion that the best public policies are those that draw their bearing from the intent of our founding fathers. Rather, it reveals the constitution's creation as the result of a hodge-podge of compromise and expedience, aimed at forging a nation out of thirteen disparate former colonies, with the expectation that future generations would modify it to continue the process of creating a "more perfect union."
The Taming, a Theatre Unbound production, continues through September 24, 2016, at Stepping Stone Theatre, 55 Victoria Street North, Saint Paul, MN Tickets are $18.00 - $22.00. $2.00 discount with Minnesota Fringe wristband. For tickets and information go to theatreunbound.com or call 612-721-1186.
Writer: Lauren Gunderson; Director: Mel Day; Set Design: Alissa Gold; Costume Design: Cole Bylander; Light Design: Jenny Moeller; Sound Design: Dixie Treichel; Stage Manager: Chandler Daily
Cast: Kelsey Cramer (Bianca/Charles Pinckney), Julie Ann Greif (Patricia/James Madison), Nissa Nordland (Katherine/George Washington/others).