Hub Theatre Company’s production of The Taming is engaging, thanks in no small part to the hilarious performances of its three lead actors.
The Taming by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Juliet Bowler. Staged by Hub Theatre Company at Club Cafe, 209 Columbus Ave, Boston, MA, through July 28.
By Erik Nikander
The Taming, Lauren Gunderson’s farcical take-down of partisan American politics, is as amusing as it is frustrating. The show blends Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with a healthy dash of Sartre’s No Exit with the goal of skewering the excesses of modern liberalism and conservatism alike. At times, the result is brilliant; at others, it feels wrongheaded and counterproductive, offering a portrait of America’s warring political factions that doesn’t feel quite true to life. Still, even if the flaws in Gunderson’s political analysis make the play difficult to fully accept, Hub Theatre Company’s production of the show is engaging, thanks in no small part to the hilarious performances of its three lead actors.
After a raucous pre-Miss America party, two women wake up locked in a hotel room without their phones, their pants, or the slightest clue how they got there. The first to awaken is Patricia (Lauren Elias), aide to an ultra-conservative Senator whose landmark jobs bill she is determined to pass. The second is Bianca (Katie Grindland), an ultra-liberal crusading blogger fighting to kill that same bill because it threatens her pet project, the protection of a species of shrew. They’re soon joined by Katherine (Sarah J. Mann), a beauty queen with even bigger ambitions than being crowned Miss America. The two captives find themselves embroiled in Katherine’s mad (yet brilliant) plan to transform America for the better.
Gunderson’s script satirizes the intense self-righteousness that festers at political extremes. Lampooning the excesses of way-out beliefs calls for excessive farce, so a production of The Taming relies on actors who are willing to commit themselves fully to wild, over-the-top performances. Director Juliet Bowler knows just what is demanded, and her cast doesn’t shy away from embracing the script’s madcap comedy. Katie Grindland in particular digs into Bianca’s egotism with a ferocity that is both humorous and terrifying at same time. Yes, the character strains at the bounds of believability, but Grindland’s commitment to Bianca, particularly the figure’s opportunities for physical comedy, is total.
Lauren Elias’s Patricia, a Republican who (it is implied) is heteroflexible, turns out to be a more internally conflicted figure. Elias’s layered performance reflects the figure’s contradictions. She projects a purposelly masculine bravado that serves as a convincing smokescreen for the character’s deep uncertainty and vulnerability. Katherine, as played by Sarah J. Mann, may be the play’s most fascinating caricature. At first, she comes off as a stereotypically air-headed beauty pageant contestant. But Katherine soon proves to be the smartest analyst of America in the piece, offering the boldest ideas for bettering the country. Much like Gunderson’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette in her play The Revolutionists, Katherine is a strangely compelling marriage of flightiness and intellect. Mann’s pitch-perfect delivery and comic timing are spot-on.
The Taming is also quite successful on a technical level. The scenic work, by Ben Lieberson and Megan Kineen, is understated but effective. They have created a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the play’s conflict can churn and stew. Erica Desautels’s costume work is bold and vibrant, especially Katherine’s pageant outfits and the garments worn by the characters when they’re sent back in time to a dreamed-up version of the Constitutional Convention. (It makes sense in context. Sort of.) Bowler’s limber direction threads the script’s elements together, weaving the three central performances into a side-splitting unity. This may be a helter-skelter farce, but Bowler wisely incorporates quiet, intimate moments, much-needed emotional footholds (and breathers) for the audience.
It’s a shame, then, that the quality of the script does not quite match that of the production. The Taming contains some interesting, even valuable, political ideas. For example, Gunderson acutely assesses the fallibility of the Constitution and decries modern-day America’s reliance on, and reverence for, a document that is over 200 years old. She points out that America has been a crazy experiment since the beginning, and that the idolization of our founding fathers tends to lead us astray.
When, in a dream, Patricia assumes the role of James Madison at the Constitutional Convention, she makes a mild attempt to end the institution of slavery, but is strong-armed by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina into allowing the atrocities of the slave trade to continue. One can’t help but imagine the good a few anti-slavery extremists could have done had they been involved in the drafting of the Constitution.
But the script’s ultimate faith in moderation and bipartisan compromise proves to be a weakness, neutralizing the script’s essential bite. Katherine’s plan to save America is to hold a new Constitutional Convention in order to draft a guiding document that’s more relevant to the 21st century. Of course, that notion would never gain bipartisan approval in the face of American conservatives, whose default position is to see the Constitution as a flawless, heaven-sent document.
Thus Gunderson’s script ends up reflecting a frustrating tendency of many centrist liberals to view compromise as the ultimate goal of politics. This philosophy is not shared by their political opponents; Republicans play to win while Democrats play to compromise. Perhaps the dramatist decided to play it safe, given the moderate-left demographics of regional theatergoers. She puts any reasonable hope of radical change out of reach.
The Taming may not be completely successful as political satire; on occasion it becomes too bizarre to take seriously. But this production is elevated by Hub Theatre’s technical presentation as well as the efforts of Elias, Grindland, and Mann. In the hands of lesser talents, the play’s characters would come across as thin caricatures. But these women treat Gunderson’s figures as real people with genuine hopes and struggles … as much as the text permits. Though its social commentary doesn’t always resonate, The Taming scores some points as a brash and funny indictment of the inanity of contemporary American politics.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.