By Charles Brousse
Before going any further, let’s get one thing clear: Despite the suggestive title, despite the fact that it’s being produced by the Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) and two of the main characters are named Katherine and Bianca, Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming has virtually nothing in common with a certain well-known comedy by a certain well-known 16th century playwright.
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a no-holds-barred rumble in the ongoing, centuries-old battle of the sexes. In these enlightened times, it’s perceived as being on the list of the Bard’s “problem” plays because, after a couple of hours of thrashing around, the male side wins convincingly. Gunderson deftly disposes of that issue by calling for an all-female cast. Then, instead of gender competition, she builds her play around the current stalemate between warring factions in the nation’s politics: Left against Right, Liberal against Conservative, Blue against Red.
The Taming is a fanciful account of how the ideals of both sides, particularly on a pair of issues—individual freedom versus collective well-being, and states rights versus federal power—came to be tenuously balanced in the American constitutional system. Her explanation of how we arrived and where we are now is presented in the form of a wide-ranging pastiche of musical comedy, factual information and lowbrow vaudeville. In a program note, MSC director Robert Currier describes it as “ … a history lesson, with laughs.” OK. Next question: Does it work?
Except for a brief excursion back in time to Philadelphia during and just after the 1776 Constitutional Convention—which, incidentally, is one of the show’s comic highlights—Gunderson’s metaphoric political arena is the annual beauty contest in Atlanta, Georgia, the author’s home state. On display are the usual beautifully gowned young women who provide simplistic answers to equally simplistic queries, the bunting and fervent patriotic atmosphere that the event normally evokes. But hometown favorite Katherine (lively, charismatic Tristan Cunningham), who, as Miss Georgia is a leading candidate for the title, has more important things in mind.
Apparently concerned about the direction the country is headed, with the aid of some unspecified pharmacological substance, she lures Patricia (Katie Rubin, the stalwart conservative aide to a Republican senator) and Bianca (Monica Ho, an outspoken liberal activist) to her hotel room. Before anyone can say Barack Obama, the room is transformed into a debate chamber in which Katherine attempts to achieve consensus on a number of today’s leading issues. Each side invokes the views of the Founding Fathers, especially James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney as they wrestle with the need for reforms as seen from their differing ideological perspectives.
The need for an Electoral College? Equal representation in the Senate, irrespective of state population numbers? Who should have the right to vote? Refinements to, and clarifications of, the separation of powers?
These and more are argued at breakneck speed that can be difficult to follow, even for those who are familiar with the content. In fact, at times it can feel like an out-of-control high school civics class, in which structure is abandoned and diction is a disregarded afterthought. At other times, I was reminded of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s enlightening The Complete History of America (abridged) as the participants rush from one subject to another. Some of the discussion is truly comical and there are entertaining intervals of song, dance and unashamed shtick that make the medicine go down more easily. But, at least for this observer, with all that familiar information thrown at me for two hours and an improbable happy ending, the question I raised near the beginning of this review—whether it all works theatrically—remains unresolved.
NOW PLAYING The Taming runs through July 17 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael; 415/499-4488; marinshakespeare.org.