Do you know who the most-produced playwright after Shakespeare was nationwide last season? Eugene O’Neill? August Wilson? No. Lauren Gunderson holds that distinction. In an article in the New Yorker last October titled You’ve Probably Never Heard of America’s Most Popular Playwright, they quote American Theatre magazine as saying that Ms. Gunderson, who has had more than twenty plays produced, will be at the top of the heap in the 2017-18 season. Well, they could have used a more refined phrase, but you get the drift. Have you ever heard of her?
Brazen-Faced Varlets have. And they have moved to Main Street where they introduce Ms. Gunderson’s work to Buffalo area audiences in their current production of The Taming in the Cabaret at Alleyway Theatre. Written in 2013, it is a hilarious feminist farce, a dialogue-driven riff on the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and their wives, beauty pageants, sleazy politicians, behind-the-scenes power brokers, and social media/bloggers gone wild. Ms. Gunderson skewers all, while at the same time providing a collaborative option to right the wrongs endemic to our 21st century society.
The plot centers around a beauty queen from Georgia, currently in the Miss America Pageant, who locks up a conservative staffer who has been propping up a lecherous Senator for years and a left-wing blogger who is devastated over the potential extinction of a pygmy panda shrew rodent in a hotel room to get their help rewriting the Constitution, which will be her Talent in the pageant. After the two have thrown insults at each other for some time, she drugs them and, in a dream sequence, they all morph into several of the Founding Fathers during the Constitutional Convention. When they wake up…well, you can see for yourselves.
The Varlets and Director Lara D. Haberberger present The Taming with a cast of three women who all play several roles and a fourth who is the Stage Manager.
As the beauty queen, Katherine with her big hair, tall slender frame and stiletto heels, Stefanie Warnick towers over the others in her American flag pageant costume. She smiles and preens and has just the right amount of Southern beauty queen panache to set your teeth on edge. She plays this role as if she were born to it. She also plays George Washington, who declares whenever the occasion arises, “Am I right? Of course I am. I’m George Washington!” And she is the shrewish Martha and seductive Dolly Madison, as well as doing Sound Design and Fight Choreography.
Emily Yancey is very funny as the blogger Bianca, who is addicted to social media and her place in that universe. When she realizes her phone is missing she screams “I’m under thirty. I have a right to a phone.” In one tirade she whines that it is impossible to keep up with current trends – what if a peach is organic but not local, or local but not organic, and anyway she really wants bacon – and then throws herself on the bed. As Charles Pinckney, the South Carolina slaver who was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, she oils her way around the harried James Madison, played by Jennifer Fitzery, calling out to him “What up, nerd,” and generally creeping out everyone around her, with perhaps a bit of overkill on the crotch-grabbing.
Ms. Fitzery is also Patricia, the long-suffering dogsbody to the previously mentioned lecherous Senator. She is initially full of fire for her conservative cause, going toe-to-toe with Bianca and then gradually having a change of heart.
Jessica Leigh Tokarski is the Stage Manager, a mostly silent character in the play who changes scenes by moving around a small table and chair and American flags, wrestling a rollaway bed with some assistance from Director Haberberger, and hauling costumes into the lobby.
The dialogue in The Taming is witty, sharp and very timely. After the 2016 election, Ms. Gunderson licensed it for free staged readings on Inauguration Day. As quoted in the New Yorker, she said “It is a powerful thing to come together and laugh in a scary time.” That is still true, and very much needed, two years in. Brazen-Faced Varlets and its actors do justice to The Taming in this bare-bones production, presenting a lively evening of hilarious social commentary.