The Taming - Hub Theatre Company
The Taming – Hub Theatre Company
Review by James Wilkinson
The Taming by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Juliet Bowler. Presented by Hub Theatre Company. Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Jess Viator. Set Designer: Ben Lieberson. Scenic Artist: Megan Kinneen. Lighting Designer: Mike Wonson. Costume Designer: Erica Desautels. Sound Designer: Kyle Lampe. Props Designer: Cesara Walters. Pageant Consultant: Jamie-Shannon Ferguson.
…Yep. Simply stating the word will probably cause about half of the readers of this review to put their back up. In our contemporary twenty-four hour news cycle culture it’s become a dirty, even ugly word, conjuring up a host of unpleasant connotations including family arguments, fake news and an avalanche of think pieces detailing what new thing you should be outraged about this week and why. It’s exhausting and frustrating experience trying to be an informed American citizen these days, especially as both ends of the political spectrum circle their wagons and create their own echo chambers. Isn’t art, then, supposed to be the one place we can go to escape all of that noise? The one refuge we have from the suffocating media landscape?
Well…yes and no. I don’t begrudge anyone their occasional escapist fun (I really don’t). However, in recent years there’s been a sharp spike in artists (particularly theater practitioners) who have sought to wield their mediums in a way that brings political motivation to the forefront. A small subset of those artists have even attempted the (seemingly) impossible in our divided nation and create works with the goal of building bridges between both sides of the political aisle. Hub Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming falls into this latter category. The play is a high-speed political farce (with more than a dab of Frank Capra-esque American optimism) that sets itself the ambitious goal of inspiring the audience to be better Americans. I think that the play reaches for those goals with mixed results, but at the same time, it’s hard to be too critical of something overflowing with so much positivity.
It’s the morning before the Miss America pageant. Patricia (Lauren Elias), a conservative chief-of-staff for an equally conservative Republican senator awakes locked in a hotel room with no phones, no pants and no memory of how she got there. And, as it happens, she’s not alone. Bianca (Katie Grindland), an extremely liberal blogger (emphasis on ‘extreme’) is also trapped in the room, pant-less and phone-less. Being from opposite ends of the political spectrum (and seeing as this is a farce), the two waste no time going at each other with comic zeal and a barrage of zippy one-liners that seems to mirror the early scenes between Katherine and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s original tale. Both have their reasons for getting out that room and to a phone as soon as possible but they won’t be allowed to leave. Not yet, at least. Their captor is Katherine (Sarah J. Mann) a beauty queen from Georgia who plans to win the Miss. America title by getting these two politically opposed women come together and create a plan to fix America.
The ingredients are all present for a slamming-door farce with Patricia and Bianca’s outrage at the other’s politics ramping up to frenzied levels when Gunderson’s script switches gears. After debating the founding fathers’ views on what America has become, the characters (thanks to an overdose of ether) are kicked back to 1787 to find out first hand. It’s an interesting theatrical device that was used for similar effect in Caryl Churchill’s play Cloud Nine. The bickering of opponents in present days is directly juxtaposed with the bickering of opponents at the birth of the country and lets us get a view of how politics hasn’t changed as much as we might think it has in the last 250 years.
I think that the extent that this production works comes from the commitment of the actors to the farcical pace of the show. Once it sets off, it goes like a gunshot. In the first act of the play, when Patricia and Bianca meet, the jokes come fast and furiously. I personally don’t think that all of them land, but the ones that do are loaded with enough wit and energy that I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I found myself giggling through much of it. By the time that one jokes fails, you’ve already been hit with two others. Each actor get their moments but MVP of the production, I think, has to go to Sarah J. Mann who delivers a gem of a comic performance not only as Southern belle Katherine, but as George Washington, Dolly Madison and Martha Washington. The rules of farce require that the characters be somewhat cartoonish, but Mann finds a way to make her Katherine feel like a real person while also wringing out every laugh that she can from the persona.
A love of America seems to have been infused into every aspect of the play and production. Ben Lieberson’s set design wraps the stage in red white and blue while Mike Wonson’s lighting gives it a beauty pageant pop. But it’s not a blind love of America at any cost. What I think Gunderson is really trying to hammer home is that America isn’t perfect; it never was. However, what gives it the potential to be great is that it has the drive to try to be better, to never stop reaching for a more perfect union. In an earnest moment of staging, director Juliet Bowler has her actors come into the audience as they deliver an impassioned plea for America to keep pursuing that utopia the founding fathers hoped to create.
I can appreciate and admire Gunderon’s attempt to that messier but still optimistic patriotic message, especially the way that she does so while essentially staying politically neutral. There’s good and bad behavior depicted on both sides. Still, there’s a nagging voice in the back of my head that finds parts of the play’s resolution a bit hollow. I think that much of it operates on the idea that people working together across the political aisle that could happen tomorrow, the politicians just need to do it. If only they’d just do it. I’m all for finding commonalities, but this line of thinking kind of glosses over the fact that the ideologies represent totally different views on the role of government in society. I also think that Gunderson manages to make her strongest arguments at the half way point of the play, causing the last third to lose some of its narrative steam. There were a few points that I assumed the play was ending only to discover that there was another scene.
I don’t have the answers to fix America (apologies if you thought I did). Perhaps there are no answers. But rather than letting you admit defeat, Hub Theatre’s production is looking to push you to keep searching. To put in the work. Perhaps there are some irreconcilable differences but we have to keep trying. We don’t have any other choice.
The Taming is presented by Hub Theatre Company July 13-28, 2018.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.hubtheatreboston.org