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The Taming: Unraveling Today's Political Gridlock

by Nicole Fisher

The Taming: Unraveling Today's Political Gridlock

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Picture by Weldon Weaver

March 27, 2016

Photo: (from L-R) Glynnis O'Donoghue, Katherine Drew and Donna Scott star in Lauren Gunderson's The Taming, directed by Tonya Bludsworth (Weldon Weaver photo)

If Lauren Gunderson was running for public office, I'd have a have a catchy campaign slogan ready for her: "Now more than ever, America needs The Taming!"

But playwright Gunderson, whose political farce The Taming will be presented in its Charlotte premiere by Donna Scott Productions from March 31 through April 16 at the Charlotte Art League, is far more interested in dissecting and lampooning the political process than wading into the hand-shaking, speech-making, and lobbyist-massaging fray. 

"(The Taming) is about the ludicrous, hypocritical heart of so much political rhetoric and action right now," says the 34-year-old Gunderson. "I wrote it in 2013, and it feels like it’s even more appropriate now." When a reality TV star who offers his followers a cult of personality instead of policy is the front runner of a major political party, it's hard to argue with the dramaturge who was the recent recipient of the Dramatist Guild of America Award. (Gunderson was also named in the top 10 of American Theatre Magazine’s most produced playwrights of 2015.)

"(The play) is making fun of Republicans and Democrats—the conservatives, liberals and Libertarians. Everyone gets egg on their face," Gunderson says. "There’s great power in farce to disarm people and bring them together."

Addressing gender as well as political stereotypes, the crackling satire pits an ultra-conservative senator's aide against a bleeding-heart liberal blogger in a locked hotel room. Their only way out is to satisfy a sparkly and effusive Miss America contestant who may also be a ditzy political genius. The beauty queen has kidnapped the politicos, and will only free them when they reach a compromise to make America a more perfect union. The all-female cast also plays our founding fathers in a flashback to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

All this, plus high culture—as its title suggests, The Taming is (very) loosely based on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

"You can’t be a playwright without having some sort of relationship with Shakespeare," Gunderson says. "There’s a lot to mine, and a lot to make fun of as well. Shakespeare is not bullet proof, certainly when it comes to the play The Taming of the Shrew, which I’ve always hated."

Which brings us to Shakespeare and Shrew's elephant in the room—namely the scene in the original where the horribly abused Katherine delivers a self-debasing speech on a woman's duty to her husband. How does a professed feminist like Gunderson come to grips with that?

"I don’t think you can come to grips with that speech," she says. "(The Taming of the Shrew) is a play about a bullying misogynist. We have to acknowledge that."

Statistically, one out of eight women will be abused by men in their lives. Gunderson says we can’t accept that data and still laugh at Shakespeare's comedy of the sexes, "Unless we write a new ending that has Katherine slapping the crap out of Petruchio."

Though scales fall from liberal and conservative eyes alike in Gunderson's play, these sassy, outspoken female characters are not being brought to heel. So what exactly is being tamed in The Taming?  "History is, in some way, tamed," Gunderson says. "The unimpeachable adoration for the founders is brought into perspective."

When Gunderson's characters time-slip to 18th century Philadelphia, the playwright takes aim at measures taken by the architects of America to keep the nascent coalition of squabbling states together—temporary patches that have become calcified and inscribed in stone. These wise and intelligent men were "not perfect intellectually or morally," Gunderson says. For instance, the play’s comic confrontation between George Washington and South Carolina delegate (and party animal) Charles  Pinckney illustrates how slavery was enshrined in our founding document to keep the southern colonies from breaking away. "It’s debatable that slavery is why we built (the country), but it’s certainly how we did it," the playwright says, noting thatthe legacy of racism is still at the core of our problems today.

The solutions advocated by The Taming's dazzling beauty queen—named Katherine after Shakespeare’s heroine—are completely doable, says Gunderson. Eliminating the Electoral College, redistricting so that more congress members will represent their constituents—these fixes would grant the public more access to the political process. "They are bold propositions, but they also make sense," she says. "We could frame something that's more fair and representative."

Political pundits have yet to weigh in on the fixes put forth in The Taming, but a few theater critics have called the solutions unworkable. It may that the play’s solutions appear naïve because they come out of the mouth of a beauty queen, says Gunderson, but it was the writings of Harvard Law Professor and author/activist Lawrence Lessig that provided her main source for the proposals she put into her characters' mouths. "These are ideas that I pulled directly from fancy smart old white guys," she says. "If the critics knew that, they might not be so quick to say that they were naïve."

"The problem with most government solutions that it is far easier to propose them in incremental steps than it would be to get the booster shot our country needs." Unfortunately, even baby steps encounter obstacles. Gunderson points to the faltering efforts to take money out of politics, a Sisyphean task further crippled by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

Given The Taming's focus on feminism and politics, Gunderson has been watching this campaign season with keen interest. "The fact that Hilary Clinton is running and that she could win it is deeply inspiring to me," Gunderson says. "She’s this amazing bridge between old school feminism and the more modern, youthful variety. She's had to play the game to get to the point where she can be her own woman. I’m certainly grateful that she’s running, and I love that this play is in conversation with that."

With its surreal tone, a trip through the ether to a pivotal point in American history and its engagement with pressing and serious issues, is The Taming a play about politics, feminism or equality?

All three, says Gunderson, "and there are wonderful productions where the casting is as diverse as you can get. I've seen versions where a black woman plays Charles Pinckney. It’s  really interesting to watch—and kind of wild."

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Tags: politics, Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, Laura Gunderson, campaign, Republican, Democrat, Founding Fathers, Constitutional Convention

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