All it takes to meaningfully address the ideological divide in America is a claustrophobic hotel room, a knockout drug, and an interceding beauty pageant contestant. But the Miss Georgia in Lauren Gunderson’s wacky “The Taming,” now on stage at the Scripps Ranch Theater, has loftier ambitions than that: enlisting the help of an arch-conservative senator and a do-gooding liberal blogger as reluctant collaborators, she wants to reframe and remake the Constitution. It’s faulty and needs fixing.
Only a playwright as imaginative and activist as Gunderson would attempt to very freely adapt Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” into a political farce with such an incongruous premise as this. Here, for example, “the Crone” is the fate of the pygmy panda shrew – just one of the arguments of the hotel room fighters.
“The Taming” premiered in 2013. His Red State versus Blue State animosity is more relevant than ever, and his observations on the architecture of the Constitution and the fragility of democracy are still worth examining. But as the production of Scripps Ranch directed by Marti Gobel shows, the set-up of the room is so contrived and its polemics so tiresome that everything it tries to say borders on noise after a while.
The three-person cast nobly tries to make it work. Katee Drysdale and Sutheshna Mani are the Senator’s aide, Patricia, and social media influencer Bianca, who at first wakes up in an Atlanta hotel room, disoriented and – horror of horrors! – without their cell phones. After a series of fierce names that reference all the tropes of right and left, they are joined by Miss Georgia (Kylie Young) with long hair and an evening dress. She explains to them with a smile that they were drugged and that they will not be allowed to leave until the Constitution is rewritten in a way that would honor the ideals of James Madison.
Young like the contest contestant happens to gnaw most sets, and in the context of this prank, some gnawing is allowed. Drysdale and Mani continue relentlessly throughout an opening act that only compels them to express their outrage or outrage.
It is in the second act of the play, where the three are transported to the Constitutional Congress of Philadelphia in 1787, that the actors, each in period costume and powdered wig, can escape the constraints of the first act. Young is transformed into the rather pompous George Washington and Mani into pro-slavery founding father Charles Pinckney. Drysdale became James Madison, “Father of the Constitution”. This time, when she and Bianca/Pinckney go to war, it’s over the morality of slavery, and this time the roles are reversed: Bianca is the curator and Patricia the conscience of the proceedings.
Young comes in and out as Martha Washington, then drunken Dolly Madison, while Mani struts his stuff as Pinckney. It is the character of Drysdale who grows the most, not only in the Colonial flashback, but later in the current denouement of the play. As such, his performance in “The Taming” is his most believable and winning.
Even with all of its rhetoric, “The Taming” strives to be funny. It does, but only in spurts. The pacing is erratic and even in the upper second act the story seems to go from false ending to false ending. Perhaps the same could be said of the political debate in America.
When: Until May 1. 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sunday.
Or: Legler-Benbough Theater, Alliant International University, 9783 Avenue of Nations, San Diego
Tickets: $12 to $39
Call: (858) 395-0573
In line: scrippsranchtheatre.org
Coddon is a freelance writer.