Shrew you, shutdown! The Taming gets it right

The Taming
In the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming, the future of America is in the hands of three slightly insane women – a liberal political activist (Marilet Martinez, left), a beauty queen (Kathryn Zdan, center), and a conservative senatorial aid (Marilee Talkington) – who might just be revolutionary geniuses. Below: The Crowded Fire Theater production (with, from left, Martinez, Zdan and Talkington) takes us into a 21st-century hotel room and into late 18th-century America. Photos by Pak Han.

The word “factions” is uttered in a way that makes it sound like the filthiest word you can imagine. And, in these tense government shutdown days, it actually is. But when James Madison says the word, you feel it whistling through the centuries like an airborne bomb that explodes afresh every time political idiocy allows factions (it’s such an easy word to say with loathing) to hijack democracy.

The world premiere of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming couldn’t come at a more volatile time. Our government just happens to be in the middle of a crisis that was anticipated, according to Gunderson’s play, by our founding fathers. The wise Mr. Madison did his best to avert the power of the special interests, but he compromised to keep our fledgling country steady and strong, at least to start.

Now we have a clusterfuck of right and left and red and blue and hardline, ego-dominated politics that is actually bad for the people of this country – all the people of this country. And that is exactly what Gunderson’s The Taming is addressing in a way that is smart, incisive and incredibly funny.

This vivacious world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater (part of a rolling world premiere with Seattle’s Arts West) couldn’t be more timely. Gunderson, who is pretty much writing every play on Bay Area stages these days (see Shotgun Players, see Marin Theatre Company, see TheatreWorks, see San Francisco Playhouse), has created a satirical comedy that works on its own terms, but she has also crafted a rather ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, that problematic play that asks a beaten-down, starved woman to say she’s “ashamed women are so foolish.”

The Taming

Gunderson will have none of that, so in her version, she spins Shakespeare’s characters – Katherine, the titular shrew, is now Miss Georgia, a contestant in the Miss America pageant; Bianca, the bratty younger sister of the shrew, is now a lefty-liberal blogger; and Petruchio, the “tamer,” is now a right-wing conservative Republican politico who also happens to be a lesbian – and sets them on a worthwhile task of taming. These ladies, who couldn’t be more different from one another, are asked to combine their passion, their intelligence and their love of country in an effort to tame the U.S. Congress, and while they’re at it, fix the Constitution and the country itself.

The Shrew connection is mostly played for laughs (actual shrews are mentioned often, but it’s in context of the liberal blogger’s quest to keep a species of panda shrews from extinction), with a few sly references here and there until the end, when Gunderson smacks down Shakespeare by kicking a formerly repellent speech (and nearly always repellent Congress) squarely in the ass.

The really nifty trick here is that Gunderson sets up three women we think we know – stereotypes of the beauty queen, the bleeding-heart liberal, the heartless conservative – and lets them surprise us (in good ways and otherwise). It feels great to laugh at smart comedy that cares about the Constitution, about the Founding Fathers’ best intentions, about making long overdue and necessary changes to a country that still has a lot of evolving to do and still has time for broad physical comedy involving a lack of pants.

Director Marissa Wolf drives an almost manic pace as Gunderson sets up her plot: a locked hotel room contains one genius mastermind (the beauty queen, naturally, played with delicious comic flair by Kathryn Zdan) and two seeming enemies, the social media-obsessed crusader (a loose canon Marilet Martinez) and the old-school Republican serving a powerhouse conservative senator (an increasingly hilarious and surprisingly sweet Marilee Talkington).

There are things about this hugely entertaining production that could be sharpened – too many lines get lost in rushed delivery and in the wake of big laughs – but the messiness is part of the appeal. Drugs, sparkly evening wear, sexual tension, kidnapping and scandal are all part of the mix.

And then Gunderson does something wonderful. She takes us to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and lets the 21st-century women play George Washington, James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (who voices the powerful opinion of the slavery-loving South and represents one of those factions who threatens to leave the discussion at every hint of not getting exactly what they want). Dolly Madison and Martha Washington make guest appearances, and once we’re back in the hotel room (set by Mikiko Uesugi), we get more zaniness, a satisfying glimpse into a better future and a “dance break for America.”

The happy ending, borne of actual conversation filled with actual dialogue, seems like pure fantasy at this point (alas), but it’s a giddy delight none the less. The Taming has much to offer that is pointed, thought provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, but I cannot get the image of Talkington’s pantyhose out of my head, nor the image of Zdan, all in sparkling blue, shouting, “I am an ambitious American woman in evening wear, and I will not be fucked with!” I’m ready to vote for either woman to do anything.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Lauren Gunderson (and local actor Jennifer Le Blanc) for a story in American Theater magazine. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming continues through Oct. 26 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Shotgun’s dramatic attack of the clones

By and By

Jennifer Le Blanc is Denise and Michael Patrick Gaffney is Steven, one of the world’s foremost cloning scientists, in Shotgun Players’ world-premiere production of By and By by Lauren Gunderson. Below: Bari Robinson (left) and Lynne Hollander are enigmatic government mouthpieces. Photos by Pak Han


When playwright Lauren Gunderson arrived on the Bay Area theater scene, she arrived in a big way. First, she blew everyone away with her comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear and then she proved to be incredibly prolific, with seven plays debuting in two years. Her By and By, having its world premiere at Shotgun Players, is one of three new plays she’ll open this year in the Bay Area.

The play, a sort of humanistic/science fiction exploration of what human cloning might really be like, is a great example of why a Gunderson script is so appealing. Delving into the serious implications of creating human beings outside the natural order, Gunderson has one character express it this way: “God is pissed off because you’re messing with his shit.” And later in the play, she has another character say in chilling tones, “It’s not right to play God…and fail.”

Science fiction, even if it’s on the verge of becoming non-fiction, is a tough sell on stage. Somehow, creating an alternate version of our existing world in another time and space is more the purview of film than of stage, which doesn’t really make sense except that it’s easier to create a seemingly fully formed vision of a real world on film than it is on stage, which always seems a little rough around the edges.

Think about all those great plays set in deep space…oh, wait.

So what Gunderson, working with director Mina Morita, crafts is a human-scale drama focusing on people directly involved in the advancement of cloning technology. Their motivations and the real-life consequences of science are at the heart of this 70-minute drama, which soars in its one-on-one relationships and falters when it veers into more thriller-like aspects of the story (on the run from shadowy government figures! Big Brother-like surveillance!).

Michael Patrick Gaffney is devoted dad Steven, a doctor who was at the forefront of the race to clone a human after successful trials with dogs and cats. Once he succeeded creating a human clone, who unbeknownst to her was his daughter, Denise (Jennifer Le Blanc), he fled the field and watched as cloning clinics became overwhelmed with customers wanting a custom-made human.

By and By

The problem, it turns out, is that something wasn’t quite right with Steven’s science. The cloned humans begin to falter in their teen years, become sick and die. But somehow Steven’s daughter is perfectly healthy at 18, and the government wants to know why. That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is Denise finding out that she’s a clone – not a clone of a dead child, like so many of the other clones out there, but a clone of her father’s wife, also named Denise (and also played by Le Blanc in flashbacks and fantasy sequences), who was killed in a car accident.

Reacting like a teenager, which is to say with sass and belligerence, Denise pummels her father with questions, and when she asks where she was actually conceived or made, her father says, “Vancouver.” “I’m a clone and I’m Canadian?” she replies in utter horror. You gotta love the Gunderson wit.

When Denise blots and begins seeking her own answers, her investigation leads her to the death bed of another young clone (Bari Robinson) who was made in his dead brother’s image. He’s understandably bitter about the science that created him and now has left him to die, but he knows the real toll will be felt by his mother. “I’m not sure I can make her go to the same funeral for a different son,” he says.

Gaffney and Le Blanc are superb. At first it’s sort of annoying that Le Blanc is so obviously not a teenager, but then when she returns as the original Denise, it’s rather a startling transformation and the actor’s differentiation between the two women comes into clear focus. A scene toward the end of the play in which she plays both women almost simultaneously is nothing short of astonishing.

Robinson and Lynne Hollander play various supporting roles, including the governmental talking heads, which seem superfluous to the action. And Gaffney’s character, though fully realized as a father, seems underdone as a scientist. There’s a reason his cloning of his daughter worked and the cloning of all the kids after left didn’t. It seems like he knows that reason or that there’s something he still hasn’t divulged, but the play ends before we get there.

Intriguing and well produced, By and By makes a big theatrical leap and mostly succeeds in creating a vision of a time when, as Gunderson puts it, “impossibility becomes normal.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lauren Gunderson’s By and By continues through June 23 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Country-fried Bear offers finger-lickin’-good comedy

Bear 1

Hug it out! Three friends – Andrea Snow as Sweetheart (left), Reggie D. White as Simon (center) and Erin Gilley as Nan – rejoice in their revenge drama as their victim, Patrick Jones as Kyle (the one duct-taped to a chair) begins to reconsider his violent behavior in Lauren Gunderson’s spiky comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a Crowded Fire Theater Company production at the Boxcar Theater. Below: Gilley and Jones work through some thorny issues. Photos by Dave Nowakowski

 

Falling in love with a playwright whose work you’re experiencing for the first time feels like Christmas morning at age 6 – giddy excitement, new toys, wonder and sugar high all wrapped up in a nice holiday package. That’s what it felt like the other night at the Boxcar Playhouse watching Crowded Fire Theater Company’s production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, a Georgia native who now lives and works in San Francisco.

Taking her cue from the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene iii), Gunderson returns to the hills of Northern Georgia for a crispy revenge drama served up with salty laughs and the kind of clever attention to detail that signals the arrival of a writer to whom you should pay attention. When writers say they’re going to tackle a serious subject from a comic angle, they’re really just marketing a heavy drama that maybe has a laugh or two but really it just makes you want to kill yourself.

Gunderson really does just that. Her play is brave in that it takes domestic abuse head on but in a completely unconventional way with huge laughs that in no way undermine the drama. If there’s ever been a play about a husband beating his wife that’s this much fun, I certainly don’t know it. Maybe some will feel there’s absolutely nothing to laugh at where this subject is concerned, but Gunderson’s world is so theatrical, so smart and so emotionally true there’s absolutely no reason to take offense. On the contrary – she’s a champion of female empowerment and refuses to demonize just for the sake of creating a bad guy.

It’s not hard to miss the bad guy. That would be Kyle (Patrick Jones), the redneck dude duct-taped to his recliner. Seems Kyle has not been a dream to live with these last six years of wedded non-bliss with wife Nan (Erin Gilley). He hunts illegally, while his animal-loving wife works at a veterinary clinic. He gets drunk and hits her. She’s bright and would seem to know that she doesn’t have to stay with him. But from her perspective, she has no hope, no choice, no life beyond the small house in the woods she shares with Kyle. She’s scared.

bear 2

But then she meets, by chance, a woman named Sweetheart (Andrea Snow), and over a Subway sandwich and discussion of Shakespeare, they bond. Sweetheart is a stripper/aspiring actress, and she’s good for Nan. Bolstered by Sweetheart on one side and Simon (Reggie D. White), her BFF since middle school, on the other, she finds the courage to take action. She hatches a plan to make Kyle see the error of his ways, and to do this, she creates a show of sorts. She and Sweetheart and Simon will reenact key scenes from Nan and Kyle’s marriage, a sort of play within the play for a very captive audience – theater with an “re” as one of the characters puts it. “Use the power of the fourth wall to expose himself to himself,” Sweetheart explains before adding later, “Let’s get classical!”

The play will end with Kyle surrounded by lots of raw meat, an open door, lots of bottles of honey and an open invitation to every bear in the woods to come on in and have a feast. The plan, in a nutshell, is “let nature in and get the hell out” or even more simply, “man hatin’ and bear baitin’.”

At only 75 minutes, the play flies by but never feels slight. Director Desdemona Chiang finds exactly the right tone to bring out the sympathy and sass in Nan’s story. The meta-theatrical jokes, the breaking of the fourth wall, the use of video slides (designed by Wesley Cabral) all contribute to the fun, but the performances really do the trick when it comes to mining the story for its emotional truth. Every actor in that rustic cabin (wonderful set design by Emily Greene really makes you feel like you’re in a Georgia home) is fantastic and just keeps getting more and more interesting as the play continues. They find ways to make their characters endearing without being cloying and manage to bring out the smartness and sincerity in Gunderson’s writing.

Gunderson is so deft she can even make something cliché – like Fourth of July fireworks to symbolize Nan’s independence – seem smart and funny. She even rescues a song from the slag heap of ’80s pop and makes you hear it with fresh ears.

I can see why three theaters – Crowded Fire, along with Synchronicity Theater in Atlanta and ArtsWest in Seattle – tripped over themselves to make this Bear growl this year. They formed an alliance to give the play a rolling world premiere, which is to say three separate productions in succession. The play is, in a way, post-ironic. Its meta-theatrical self-awareness makes it hip and of the moment, but all that leads to a powerfully authentic and emotional place.

I can’t wait to see what Gunderson brings to Bay Area stages next.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed Exit, Pursued by a Bear playwright Lauren Gunderson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear continues through Sept. 7 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.