Two women wake up in a strange hotel room, one without pants and both without their phones. How did they get there, and how do they get out? The politically charged, complicated and often funny answer is the basis of “The Taming,” now at Williamston Theatre. Lauren Gunderson’s script is a nerdy, snarky and impassioned argument for civility and patience in politics. But the play, as directed by Lynn Lammers, feels like a work in progress that sometimes struggles to connect with its audience.
“The Taming” feels like another prophetic choice for Williamston Theatre.
Like last season’s “1984,” “The Taming” resonates forcefully in the present political moment, even though it was written in 2013 and barely touches on current events. The two women in the hotel room identify themselves as a Republican political aide named Pat (Angela Dawe) and a far-left social media warrior, Bianca (Alysia Kolascz). They’re both pawns in a plot by Katherine, a beauty pageant contestant and law scholar (Melissa Mercieca), to rewrite the United States constitution. What begins as a lesbian sitcom version of Sartre’s “No Exit” quickly turns into a fever dream, a non-musical blend of “Hamilton”, “Drunk History” and constitutional theory. It all ends with an optimistic message and dance party, even if you miss some of the jokes.
Dawe, Kolascz and Mercieca are a fun trio to watch. Dawe and Kolascz are gleefully combative at the beginning, slinging cable-news political labels as epithets while trying to assess their situation. When Bianca describes herself as a “proud, liberal patriot,” Pat snipes back, “that is not a thing.” Mercieca’s smarter-than-she-looks Miss Georgia steals these early scenes with her spoton Georgia drawl and her icy tough glare. When Mercieca says “momma taught me bedazzlement,” you believe her. Still, most of the jokes and dialogue feel like obvious surface punches that tell the audience little about the characters. Despite some farcical physical comedy, the actors struggle to find their groove.
The cast and the play are on better footing after a stunningly quick scene and costume change. In a history scholar’s dream, decked in wigs and stockings, the three now debate writing the constitution in 1787 with Pat as the liberal James Madison, Bianca as the pro-slavery and states-rights blowhard Charles Pinckney and Katherine switching between George and Martha Washington. The dialogue is modern, with meta-commentary on historical parallels, but the actors in drag feel unleashed. While Dawe plays Madison as a sheepish nerd for details, Kolascz revels in playing Pinckney as a cartoonish male chauvinist. Here, the three women and their comic timing gel. Many of their jokes seemed to go over the Saturday night audience’s heads, but the cast plowed through unfazed. The show actually gets more silly and surreal jumping back to the present and future, but the blast-to-the-past is the show highlight.
Scenic designer Elspeth Williams deserves props for the set’s versatility; a stage within a stage that quickly converts from a hotel room to a convention hall and back again. Holly Iler’s costume design is at its most hilariously ostentatious with Katherine’s star-spangled American pageant dress. Like a red-carpet gown for the grand opening of a flag factory, it’s a sight to behold.
At its best, “The Taming” is a playful reminder that we’ve been through tougher times before and survived. That’s a message that bears repeating.
“The Taming” Williamston Theatre Through Oct. 22 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays $27 Thursdays/$32 Friday- Saturday evenings/$29 matinees/$10 students/ seniors & military $2 discount 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston (517) 655-SHOW, williamstontheatre.com