Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A left-wing blogger and a right-wing congressional aide wake up in a hotel room in various levels of undress, with no idea how they got there. The door is locked and their cell phones are gone. It turns out they’ve been abducted by an immaculately poised Georgia beauty queen who wants them to help her rewrite the United States Constitution.
Admittedly it’s pretty unlikely that you’ve heard that before, at least unless you’ve seen The Taming, the latest in a rapid-fire series of new plays from prolific local playwright Lauren Gunderson, who also opened a play at Marin Theatre Company this week called I and You. The Taming is a world premiere commissioned by Crowded Fire Theater, which gave Gunderson her local debut with 2011’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Like Bear and Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre, this one is loosely inspired by Shakespeare, but not so you’d notice. The Taming of the Shrew was seemingly only a long-ago jumping-off point for a story that was soon overtaken by other themes, leaving only character names and an occasional line like “will you or nill you” to wink at the Bard. (In fact, of the three women in the play, the one named Katherine is the one least like Shakespeare’s character of the same name.)
The Taming is also easily the best thing I’ve seen from Gunderson since Bear, much funnier and more polished than the works she’s premiered in the meantime (including I and You). Mostly, though, it’s hilarious, with a priceless collection of ludicrously deluded but powerful personalities crammed into one tiny space. (Mikiko Uesugi’s set is a typically compact modern hotel room that changes surprisingly little when we flash back to the time of the Founding Fathers.)
Katherine Chelsea Hartford, Miss Georgia, is one of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in the theater in some time, played pitch-perfectly by Kathryn Zdan, who gives just the right singsong quality to lines like “Thank you so much” to show how thoroughly Miss Georgia has rehearsed them. Costumer Miyuki Bierlein gives the beauty queen some stunning pageant gowns, including a flag suit with “God Bless America” sewn into the inside of her cape. So patriotic!
Marilee Talkington’s Patricia is a hard-ass Republican operative working hard for a sleazy senator she refers to as “the future president of conservative (and the rest of) America.” For some reason this includes a visit to the Miss America pageant, where she’s waylaid by one of the contestants and has no idea whether or not she was way laid by a left-wing activist, seeing as how she woke up with pantyhose on but no pants. (The sight of her tucking her business shirt into her pantyhose as if it’ll pass for trousers is priceless.) “I don’t remember, but I do get pretty gay when I drink,” the blogger says. Patricia is more than a little gay herself, a fact she keeps on the down-low in GOP circles and that doesn’t affect her policy positions in the least. “My uterus is conservative,” she huffs, to which blogger Bianca shoots back: “Not last night!”
Lest you suspect the red-state reactionary gets the worst of things because we’re in the liberal mecca of San Francisco, Bianca is more absurd still, a hysterically short-sighted “social media soldier” out to save the endangered North American giant pygmy panda shrew (routinely referred to as a rodent even though shrews totally aren’t rodents). Marilet Martinez’s Bianca is pugnacious and besotted with her own sense of importance in the blogosphere. “I am a proud liberal patriot,” she declares, and of course Patricia retorts, “That’s not a real thing.”
Gunderson has a knack for clever wordplay and unconventional idioms as a rule, but she is on fire with screamingly funny dialogue throughout this play, and it just keeps coming. Just when you think Patricia asking Katherine “Who are you, scary perfect lady?” is the funniest thing ever, the line is almost immediately topped by “What is going on, crazy sparkle vixen?” (Yeah, there’s some sexual tension in that room.)
What is going on is that Miss Georgia has some very big ideas for how the country she loves so much can be made a whole lot better, and she’s corralled these unlike-minded individuals (dislike-minded, even) to act as her new Constitutional Convention. Her single-mindedness is this regard is wonderful, as she keeps trying in vain to keep her ever-battling prisoners to quit baiting each other and look at her exhaustive proposal in a sparkly binder. “I am an ambitious American woman in evening wear, and I am not to be fucked with!”
Artistic director Marissa Wolf’s staging is sharp and perfectly paced, which is a good thing for a show that has a goofy slapstick chase scene thrown in just for giggles. In fact there’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to the play, especially for a show that’s under two hours. There’s a weird time-travel dream sequence just to show that politics weren’t any less screwed up in the sainted Founding Fathers’ day that it is now, and our holy Constitution was the result of “compromises” no less extortive than the ones Congress has been demanding in the present day. It also gives the marvelous cast a chance to play riotous versions of Washington, Madison and company. The plot meanders a bit in the second act, and it doesn’t have an ending so much as a series of sorta-endings (and a dance break, because that’s apparently how they roll in Gunderson plays with Crowded Fire). Despite the rough patches, it’s the most tremendously entertaining civics lesson you’re likely to see.
Show #111 of 2013, attended October 7.