Since 1999, Theatre Unbound has been producing theatre that filters this chaotic world we live in through crucial missing voices: women’s. The company is known for bringing playwrights as well known as Paula Vogel to their stage, but also lots of important new work, which is where Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming fits in.
The Taming, from Theatre Unbound’s own mouth, “is a new political comedy by Lauren Gunderson. In the play, a disturbingly patriotic beauty pagent contender kidnaps an ultra-conservative congressional staffer and an ultra-liberal blogger, imprisons them in a hotel room, and demands that they rewrite the Constitution. The Founding Fathers also make an appearance in this ferocious comedy about America’s deep political divides, present and past. The Taming offers a funny and smart look at the craziness of American politics, and in the midst of the craziest and most unpredictable presidential campaign yet.”
Comedy lovers and those who (somehow) can’t get enough thought fodder about elections and our political process right now should run to see this show as soon as possible. As funny as the show promises to be, it manages to exceed that. The friend I brought with me referred to Nissa Nordland as a “comedic tour de force” in the role of the fed up beauty pageant contestant, and I can’t think of a better turn of phrase than that to describe her sensational performance. In a three person cast I rarely expect one performer to be so outrageously good that they completely steal every moment they are on stage, but Nordland manages to do so –which is in no way a slam on Kelsey Cramer or Julie Ann Greif who both bring a lot of thought, excellent comedic timing, and moments of unexpected humanity to their characters. The ensemble work is the most solid part of the acting experience. If you direct enough shows, you can tell when actors fully trust each other, themselves, and the director. Mel Day’s direction clearly created a space for performers to develop the relationships as much as the show itself. That detail gets overlooked by many older, more experienced directors, which makes Day’s work here even more impressive, and makes the show a joy to watch.
The Taming does have a couple of problems — the script itself could use a firm hand editing the lengthy back and forth, circular conversations between characters. There is SO much good stuff in this script — which we’ll get to in a moment — but the two longest scenes get really mired down as characters repeat their stances over and over again without any major plot or character progression. I completely understand why they are there, as the play itself is about how circular and non-productive our political climate is, but that point was made much sooner than the scenes cut off.
I also had a lot of trouble with the characters themselves, with the exception of the beauty pageant contestant. In a comedy I expected them to be cartoonish and drawn pretty firmly black and white, which they are — but both were written as such strong examples of straw (wo)men that I had trouble empathizing with either at any point, in spite of Greif and Cramer’s talented, insightful take on them. Additionally, I was a little put off by some of the messaging such characters unintentionally create.
The biggest take-away from The Taming is beautiful: if we decide to lay down our metaphorical arms and talk face-to-face for long enough, we will find common ground and be able to rebuild our country — and that we do NEED to rebuild our country. Furthermore, this script places more urgency than desperation on the notion, leaving us feeling uplifted. The extremity of both the conservative and liberal character made me so uncomfortable though that there were times I didn’t want to laugh at what was otherwise a comedy. Comedy is about the unexpected, but it comes from human experience, which ultimately I had trouble finding through large sections of the script.
Nonetheless, I loved this show. I mentioned the take-away we are supposed to (and do) get from The Taming, and given the state of our country’s current political so-called discourse this show is so important. I honestly have three favorite things about this show, and one of them IS Nissa Nordland’s beauty pageant contestant. Nordland is perfectly cast, the character stunningly executed, but even just as written this is one of my favorite female characters I’ve seen on stage in a long while. I don’t want to say much more than that, because so much of what makes this character so brilliant comes in my second favorite element of this show: surprise.
While I do have a couple solid criticisms of Gunderson’s script, rarely have I been so surprised so often in a show. Somehow I missed the part in the press release that says the Founding Fathers show up, but even if I’d read it, this is NOT what I would have expected. Then there’s about three more reveals that either had me in belly-ache inducing laughter or actual shock mode. If you watch a lot of theatre or even take in a lot of books, film, or television, it’s easy to get jaded into thinking you’ve seen it all, there’s no new plots, and you know what comes next. The Taming will prove you wrong on all counts. You will maybe see the ending coming, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be as surprising as how we get to it. Everything until then is almost completely new — which is especially impressive when you consider that this show was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
My other favorite thing about this show ties into that inspiration. There are conventions I either do not like or need to be done really well for me to like in theatre. The Taming is inspired by another show, it references inside jokes for theatre people, it features a dream sequence, and uses about half a dozen other plot devices I can usually go without. Yet I loved them all, and I ate it up. Granted, in a satire, I know many of these were intended to make fun of the overdone, cliché bits, but even in a satirical setting they have been grating to me before, yet this show’s cast, direction, and script had me laughing, groaning, or feeling appropriately every step of the way.
There are a couple of striking elements of this play I want to mention.
First, Cole Bylander’s costume design features the patriotic beauty pageant dress from hell. This is a compliment. In the first scene of the show, the dress keeps having to change into something else or provide space for a reveal or surprise. I was floored by the artistry in these reveals, and wish there had been more opportunities or Bylander’s creativity. The work in the scene with the Founding Fathers was also exceptional, and the amount of underdressing that needs done in this show is a feat in and of itself.
Then there’s the whole reason we’re covering this show at The Column. I had a professor in college who would jokingly refer to nearly every play as a “gay fantasia”, but The Taming actually fits firmly into that mold. I’m not sure how much was in the script and how much was created by the team, but either way the sexual tension, double entendres, and outright woman on woman (on woman) action create a dream/nightmare-scape that queer women rarely get to experience on stage.
Finally, Gunderson’s show is SMART. It is packed with history and constitutional knowledge you either forgot or never knew. Intelligence can make or break any satirical look at a society, and Gunderson’s knowledge of her subject (and somehow all related subjects) allows this show to flourish where so many other political comedies have failed.
The Taming would benefit from one more round of editing, but the still-solid script also has a strong cast, crew, and director who created a surprising and hilarious night of theatre that also goes deep to probe our country’s political minds into getting back to what was once thought to be the heart of America—conversation, compromise, and the Constitution. When the show is over, we are left with the critical reminder that none of those things were supposed to stagnate over time, and while looking at the fantasia of the script and contrasting it with whatever we see taking shape now could mean we leave a comedy pretty bummed out, eventually these characters do all find their humanity and instead we are left inspired, wondering how, not if, we can turn things around.
Theatre Unbound’s The Taming runs through Sept. 24 at SteppingStone Theatre. For more information, visit www.theatreunbound.com.