LENOX — San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson is among America's 10 most produced playwrights this season.
Her work has been seen once before in Berkshire County — November 2013 when WAM Theatre produced "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight."
One month earlier, the third of Gunderson's four-play Shakespeare Cycle, "The Taming," had its world premiere at Crowded Fire Theatre in San Francisco. Now — after three previews last weekend and another Friday night — "The Taming" has made its way east. The wild and woolly comedy officially launches Shakespeare & Company's 2016 season — its 39th — at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where it is scheduled to run in repertory through July 30.
The "companion" plays in Gunderson's cycle — "Exit, Pursued By a Bear," "Toil & Trouble" and "We Are Denmark" — carry influences of "A Winter's Tale," "Hamlet," and "Macbeth," among others.
"The Taming" is inspired by "The Taming of the Shrew." The influences show in obvious ways — two of the play's three characters are named Katherine and Bianca; Katherine delivers a speech near the end of "The Taming" that mirrors Katherine's closing speech in "Shrew" — and sometimes not so obvious ways, says director Nicole Ricciardi, who didn't know the play until she was sent a copy of the script by Shakespeare & Company's interim co-artistic directors, Jonathan Croy and Ariel Bock.
"She uses a lot of his rhetorical devices," Ricciardi said in a Saturday morning interview backstage at the Bernstein theater, where she was joined by two of her three cast members, all new to Shakespeare & Company — Maddie Jo Landers, who plays Katherine, a Georgia beauty queen who is representing the Peach State in the Miss America pageant, and Lucy Laverly, who plays Bianca, a liberal Southern hippie activist who's been kidnapped by Katherine as party of her radical plan to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. Also in the cast is Tangela Large, who plays Patricia, an aide to an extreme conservative U.S. Senator from Georgia, who also is being held captive by Katherine in her hotel room.
"You really have to hear the play," Ricciardi said. "It's very different than when you read it. Her dialogue is very musical, very rhythmic. So much of the meaning is in the rhythm."
The 33-year-old Gunderson also adopts a familiar Shakespeare comedic device — women disguising themselves as men. At one point, Katherine, Bianca and Pat surface as George Washington, James Madison and Charles Pinckney, one of South Carolina's five delegates to the original Constitutional Convention. Pinckney was not only the youngest convention delegate, he turned out to be one of its most influential.
"Our sense is that this moment in the play is like the Forest of Arden (in 'As You Like It')," Ricciardi said. "These women all get to a new place that allows the rest of the play to work."
Ricciardi believes that Gunderson wants to take the shine off the Founding Fathers and, to an extent, the document they created — the Constitution.
In preparing for "The Taming," Ricciardi and her three actresses not only brushed up their Shakespeare, they brushed up their American history as well with two days' worth of classes.
"I'm not a political person," Lavely said. "In fact, I tend to be the direct opposite of the character I play. I tend to be non-confrontational. Bianca is a polar opposite. She is so recklessly vocal. She's quite exciting and blunt. She's found a way to crumble the system."
"(Gunderson plays) with the stereotypes of these women," Landers said. "They are all fiercely brilliant."
"How brave of Gunderson to have written these characters," Lavely said,
Landers says that for all the complexities in the play and the shifts in situation, character and dialogue, the guide posts for actors are evident.
"It is very clear in this play that if you try something and it doesn't work, you know it," she says. "This play will tell you."
For Ricciardi, trying is everything. Her guiding principle as a director is "to get out of the way. I'm a trained actress, which makes me a different kind of director. I direct only from my own experience as an actress. I like to guide and not get in people's way.
"With this play especially, I couldn't tell these women what it is. It had to come from them.
"I've always said the best stuff in my shows I didn't come up with."
"For me," Lavely said, "the director has to captain the ship. But they're also the mermaid of the ship. They let the air into the room so we can all breathe. It is so exciting to come to work in the morning and know there is someone who listens to us, who treats us with respect.
"We are all locked in together. Teamwork. We're all after making this play work they way we want it to. We did all our homework, all our research. We are all so in it to win it."
What: "The Taming" by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Nicole Ricciardi
When: Selected afternoons and evenings at 3, 7:30, 8:30 through July 30; press opening — 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
How: (413) 637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office — 70 Kemble St.