Fort Worth — At the close of Circle Theatre’s opening night performance, three red roses—laid carefully across the stage by the all-woman cast of The Taming—made for a simple and beautiful tribute to Rose Pearson, Circle’s co-founder and guide for 35 years, who died Friday after a brave battle with cancer.
That the show itself is a “woman power” extravaganza seems right, too. Over the past couple of generations, few people in North Texas did more than Pearson to open our theaters (onstage and backstage) to the talents of women as actors, directors, playwrights, designers and more.
Pearson had an eye and ear for the stuff of good theater, and this is the company’s third outing with the lively and prolific Gunderson, whose earlier Circle hits were the side-splitting Exit, Pursued by a Bear (2013) and the intimate, mysterious I and You (2015).
The Taming shares a few elements with Exit—a clear love of the way Southern women talk trash, for one—but this time, Gunderson doesn’t even bother duct-taping the men to a chair: they aren’t in the room where it happens at all, not one of them. (Both were loosely inspired by Shakespeare plays.) Directed with oh, snap energy by Robin Armstrong, The Taming is a fem-centric, funny, fast-talking political satire about our divided and dysfunctional politics—and what smart women might do about it.
Meet Patricia (Lisa Fairchild), the ultra-driven, ultra-conservative aide to a Republican senator prone to “diddling” the interns. She wakes, minus pants and shoes (did we?), locked in a star-spangled hotel room in the company of Bianca (Lauren Ferebee), a far-left blogger. (In Clare Floyd DeVries’ quietly amusing stage design, the Stars and Stripes flow relentlessly over every object in sight.) Bianca’s liberal angst is focused on keeping two million Twitter followers happy and saving a tiny endangered mammal, the giant pygmy panda shrew. (You knew there’d be a whiff of Shakespeare’s Taming somewhere, right?) Think Kellyanne Conway—you know, who took over the Trump campaign recently—versus Rachel Maddow, nose to nose…and with no exit in sight.
“I am a proud liberal patriot,” Bianca declares.
“That is not a real thing,” huffs Patricia.
Neither has a clue why they’re locked up tight—but think it might be connected to a hazy shared memory of the “Flag Angel,” a statuesque, sequined goddess. Enter Katherine (Liz J. Millea), a tiara-wearing Miss Georgia who aims to be the next Miss America. And yes, she’s nabbed the two of them as part of a plan to parlay pageant celebrity into (wait for it) a total re-do of American constitutional government.
And y’all, she’s “serious as a bald eagle” about it.
Gunderson’s rat-a-tat script has plenty of big laughs, along with some pained chuckles when she hits too close to the stuff we see on TV every day. Fairchild and Ferebee lock eyes and horns in a blistering but funny way as the Red State/Blue State combatants—intent on scoring points in a circular, never-ending shouting match. Both bring their characters to vibrant life, and a good thing, too, as Millea’s glam-Amazon schtick threatens to steal every scene she’s in. Her Katherine—smart as a whip about using her “boobs” to lure ‘em in and her brains to “make a more perfect Union”—laments the death of civil discourse and compromise in our political life, and holds James Madison up as the ultimate Founding Father. (Not that Hamilton guy, nope.)
The play’s second half begins in a dream of those same Founders at the 1787 Constitutional convention—but with a switch that makes it harder for us to remember whose side we’re on. The conservative Patricia now plays the more forward-thinking, moderate, compromising Madison (that’s director Armstrong on costumes, too), and the liberal Bianca is hard-line Charles Pinckney, the right-wing South Carolina delegate who won’t budge an inch on slavery—or the Electoral College that helped the South keep it in place. Katherine, of course, plays “G Dubs”…George Washington, referee and fearless leader. He isn’t a god, he says—but yeah, “I get that a lot.”
The Taming is anything but a blow-by-blow riff on Shakespeare. What is akin, though, is the sexual tension tickling through both plays—and the sense that we’re watching clever people figure out new rules and new strategies from inside a system that expects them to stay in pre-assigned corners. Nobody puts baby in a corner, right? And while Gunderson doesn’t solve the nation’s problems, she shovels plenty of food for thought our way—along with a plea to remember that the Founding Fathers weren’t gods, and that our democracy is something we need to use, test, and “keep fixing” in every generation.
Requiescat in pace, Rose.
» Read our obituary of Rose Pearson, which links to Mark Lowry's obit in the Star-Telegram
» Our interview with Robin Armstrong