Beauty queen on a mission in "The Taming" at Shakespeare & Company
LENOX — Compromise may be a dirty word in some corners of the current American political ether but it's a skill that was instrumental in forging a new nation back in the day when the Founding Fathers were crafting a constitution.
Compromise also is key to a plan by a beauty queen with a law degree to bring back government that's been knocked off its foundation in Lauren Gunderson's wildly uneven, go-for-broke comedy, "The Taming," which is being given a driving, propulsive, if somewhat hit-and-miss, production at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
Katherine Chelsea Hartford, the reigning Miss Georgia, has her eyes on the prize of becoming the next Miss America — "ThankY'All.SoMuch." But when a young man at the Georgia State Fair asks her what she loves most about America, Katherine replies, "its discursive foundations," and she comes to a realization.
"This country was built for dialogue, reason, compromise I knew that I had to spend my life fighting for that country, not the infighting, name-calling, house-divided country we have now," she explains to two women she is holding captive in her hotel room on the eve of the Miss America competition.
Katherine wants nothing less than to tame the United States government and bring it back to its senses by throwing out the Constitution and writing a new one. She is determined — by hook, crook and drugs — to draw into her scheme a popular liberal blogger with an environmental agenda to save the North American Giant Pygmy PandaShrew from extinction and the top aide to a conservative Republican senator from Georgia who is the point person in moving a major piece of legislation her boss is preparing to introduce.
As these three women — Katherine (an adequate Maddie Jo Landers); Bianca, the hippie liberal environmental blogger (an occasionally barking, gravel-voiced Lucy Lavely); and Patricia, the senator's aide (a wonderfully nuanced Tangela Large) — move through their long night's journey into day, they wrestle, despite their differences, with the notion of bringing into line a government that seriously has drifted off point.
That the architect of all of this is a shapely blonde beauty queen who claims to have a degree in Constitutional law is part of Gunderson's discussion throughout of role-playing, public image, stereotyping, the assumptions and snap judgments to which we are led based on too-easy assumptions we make about others.
"I have to say that y'all were making all kinds of assumptions about my ability to sabotage and kidnap based on my gender," Katherine admonishes Bianca and Patricia. ThsisWhatAFeministLooksLike,"
Gunderson appropriately saves her punch line for the end when "The Taming" takes a peek into the future. But, in one smartly crafted scene, "The Taming" shifts to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
Set in a back room, the scene is all about compromise as an essential tool of statesmanship as George Washington (Katherine) persuades James Madison (Patricia) to meet with influential South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney (Bianca) to hammer out a compromise, without which the effort to write the Constitution collapses. As written by Gunderson and particularly as played by Large and Lavely, this is the evening's most pointed and articulate scene, as Large's principled Madison/Patricia and Lavely's Pinckney/Bianca do some horse-trading around the issues of slavery and the slave trade, the Electoral College, the Bill of Rights.
Inspired by William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," "The Taming" makes generous use of a variety of theater genres, ranging from realism to farce to satire to magic realism. But the writing is short on depth and wit, long on noise and attitude.
Supported by Amy Altadonna's smartly constructed soundscape, Ricciardi and her cast have at Gunderson's material with near abandon and mixed success.
Landers and Lavely rarely transcend the boundaries of their attitude-shaped, larger-than-life characters. In sharp contrast, Large shapes her finely-tuned performance with a rich palette. There is a good deal at stake for Large's Patricia in the successful management of her boss' bill. The stakes are high. Success means securing a lock on the behind-the-scenes power and influence Patricia claims to wield in the corridors of Congress, sending her through the glass ceiling in spectacular fashion. Casting an actress of color in the role serves to emphasize the nature of the obstacle course Patricia navigates as she makes her way. She gives poignant and, at the same time, resonant voice to the "we the people" the Founding Fathers had in mind when they set out to create a more perfect union.
What: "The Taming" by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Nicole Ricciardi
With: Maddie Jo Landers, Tangela Large, Lucy Lavely
Designers: John McDermott, sets; Esther Van Eek, costumes; James Bilnoski, lighting; Amy Altadonna, sound
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Through July 30. Selected evenings at 7:30 or 8:30; selected afternoons at 3
Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes (no intermission)
How: (413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at box office — 70 Kemble St.
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