Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish. — President Lyndon B. Johnson, signing into existence the National Endowment for the Arts (1965)
Lauren Gunderson is, this theatrical season, the most-produced living playwright in America. Her play Emilie: La Marquise du ChÃ¢telet Defends Her Life Tonight was performed at Burning Coal Theatre Company last June; and, on Inauguration Day 2017, her comedy The Taming was presented by Bare Theatre at the Visual Art Exchange in downtown Raleigh.
The play’s politics, rife with progressive and feminist ideas, are appropriately timed: the eve of the Women’s March in Raleigh, where around 17,000 people, or four percent of Raleigh’s population, turned to the streets to protest, in part, the attack on women and women’s rights by the newly installed Trump Regime.
Many are alarmed by President Donald J. Trump’s rise to power — including the vast majority of the arts community — and are at a loss as to how to cope with the day’s inaugural events. Lauren Gunderson, in solidarity with other progressive artists, made her 2013 comedic play The Taming available, free of royalties, for performance on January 20, 2017 only. Along with dozens of other companies across the nation, Bare Theatre staged a well-attended reading of the play on Friday night.
While technically a staged reading (script-in-hand), co-directors Jorie Slodki and Heather J. Strickland have pulled their actors up from their stools, and around from behind their music stands, and given the play its movement, albeit simplified. Costumes, wigs, props, and sound effects were also incorporated into this event, making it more like a workshop production than a staged reading. This show is close enough to being on its legs that the Women’s Theatre Festival should consider mounting a full production in the near future.
Gunderson’s text has many moments worthy of raucous laughter, as long as the dialogue is delivered properly — with precise comedic timing. This play, however, is overwritten, by about 15 minutes. The ending section of the play, in which a poorly constructed plot twist is presented, is in great need of pruning. A brief intermission may have helped to ease the pressure on the ear, mind, and posterior.
If the text is the cannonball, the three actors in this performance were certainly the cannon — earning raucous laughter from the enthusiastic audience filling the Visual Art Exchange. The show’s most popular moment, a character’s suggestion that the Electoral College should be abolished, earned cheers and helped to perpetuate the growing energy in the room.
Heather Strickland portrayed the perfectly poised Katherine, Ms. Georgia herself, on the eve of the Miss America contest (which the author obviously finds distasteful, poking holes in the argument that it is a “scholarship” contest). Though the play is three years old, Gunderson has unknowingly reinforced the presence of one-time Miss Universe competition owner Donald Trump in the audience’s mind.
Strickland’s stereotypical pageant Q&A-type delivery would not be entirely tolerable if satire did not demand it; Gunderson is challenging our notion of the Beauty Queen trope by opening up her straw-filled head and stuffing it to the brim with constitutional expertise and a passion for revolution. She is not a mere Lady Liberty, standing silently while the huddled masses flock to her; this is a Lady of the New Revolution. She will rewrite the constitution. Not amend — rewrite. In this play, the Scarecrow has found his brain, and she has enlisted two other women into helping her begin this revised America.
Olivia Griego accentuates the assertive aggression and Type-A personality of Pat, chief of staff to a sleazebag Republican Senator. As the “straight man” of the piece, Pat serves as the author’s competitor — a pitcher whose fastballs Gunderson can take a few good swings at.
It is this point-counterpoint that makes for effective satire and allows Griego to locate and flawlessly execute the minutest of comedic details. Katherine may have a diamond tiara and American flag-styled pageant gown, but Griego’s dry wit makes Pat the evening’s standout character.
Kaley Morrison brings a brazen, bombastic tone to Bianca, a liberal blogger, would-be animal rights activist, and authority on Twitter-based self-righteousness. It would be quite easy for Gunderson to use Bianca as a surrogate for the author — taking swings at Pat’s fastballs and knocking every one out of the park — but she is just as critical of liberal Bianca’s behavior, if not more so, than conservative Pat’s.
Strangely enough, even with a decidedly liberal audience, Bianca earns the fewest laughs and is, perhaps, the least likeable character. Perhaps. she reminds us far too much of ourselves. Still, Morrison does solid vocal work with Bianca and helps keep the blood pumping through the 80-minute piece.
Presenting the reading for free, Bare Theatre decided to collect donations for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. N.C. ACLU faith and community engagement coordinator Jessica Turner and executive director Karen Anderson both made an appearance at the show and spoke to the audience about what North Carolina’s ACLU is working on.
Anderson took questions from the audience after the performance, no doubt with the confidence that she was amongst friends. A few audience members communicated their distress over President Trump’s recent statements and asked Anderson what the ACLU’s role is going to be in addressing those issues. Anderson gave the appropriate, lawyerly, response — emphasizing that the ACLU does not intend to address any alleged defects in the Electoral College process, but also echoing the national ACLU’s public statement regarding Trump’s potential actions: if you attempt to follow through on many of these promises, sir, “we’ll see you in court.”
She ended by pointing out that the national ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Thursday, asking the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the Office of Government Ethics, the General Services Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management to turn over documents related to potential conflicts of interest involving President Trump and his business dealings.
The importance of theater cannot be understated. If it was not important, I would not be typing these words, and you would not be reading them. The arts are a crucial part of the foundation on which any civilization is built. The current administration’s threats to cut funding or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts demands that provocative, investigative art be created and viewed. Local artists, be inspired: your community is not afraid of the tough conversations or of provocative material. A flame has been lit. Now go blow some stuff up.
And sooner rather than later.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 18th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-taming/Event?oid=5099143.
THE TAMING, a staged reading to benefit the ACLU of North Carolina (Bare Theatre, Jan. 20 at the Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh).
The Taming (2015 play): https://www.playscripts.com/play/2735 (Playscripts).
The Script: https://www.playscripts.com/sample/2735 (Playscripts).
Lauren Gunderson (San Francisco, CA playwright and screenwriter): http://laurengunderson.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/27155 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4454013/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/LaurenMGunderson (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/LalaTellsAStory (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Gunderson (Wikipedia).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.