Director – Robin Armstrong
Assistant Director – Katreeva Phillips
Set Designer – Clare Floyd DeVries
Scenic Artist – John R. Kruse
Props Design – Kyle Montgomery
Lighting Designer – John Leach
Sound Design – David H.M. Lambert
Costume Design – Robin Armstrong
Stage Manager – Megan Beddingfield
Lisa Fairchild – Patricia
Lauren Ferebee – Bianca
Liz J. Millea – Katherine
Reviewed Performance 8/20/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Even before the doors opened, the sound of patriotism filtered into the lobby. As people gathered, there were hugs and whispers suggesting a loss, but the spirit of Rose Pearson filled the space and on an opening night she would have been excited to share in her beloved Circle Theatre. As Associate Producer, Tim Long, said in the curtain speech, what Rose wanted more than anything was for the show to go on. And so it did, with the opening night of The Taming, an irreverent political farce that put some of the humor back into our current electoral season and, maybe, lifted the spirits of Circle Theatre.
The Taming is part of a series by author, Lauren Gunderson, which pokes gentle, if not so subtle, fun at life in these United States. Gunderson calls it an “activist comedy” as she wrote about how feminism and comedy are “essential.” With a bare passing homage to The Taming of the Shrew, she takes aim at nothing less than the U.S. Constitution and the results are mayhem and hilarity.
Robin Armstrong directed The Taming with a keen eye towards making farce come alive with all the physical, fast-paced comedy these actors could tastefully do on stage. Note that it is not for the faint of heart or sensitive ears as the language and a few visuals can get a bit risqué. Armstrong stripped bare the staging elements down to the essentials with a vision to let the humor of the text unfold on its own.
Yet she did not overlook setting. Set Designer, Clare Floyd DeVries, created an essentially bare stage, with a few chairs and small tables. The whole back wall was an American flag painted in an antique form as if it had been waving in the wind for decades. The flag continued onto the stage floor and across painted tables and chairs that looked like someone had spray painted the whole stage from a distance. It was a smorgasbord of different shades of red, white and blue. There was also a bed that appeared out of the back wall, a door that went nowhere, and a return of the Thirteen Colony flag of 1787.
This theme continued with subtle red, white and blue lighting by John Leach that brightened the whole space and enhanced the shadings of coloring on stage. Lighting was not complex, but it was so tightly linked to the theme that all this together visually placed this story instantly in its place.
David H.M. Lambert created an unusual, yet unmistakable, sound track for this show with acapella political music from what appeared to be Acapella Americana by The Liberty Voices. This was loud before the house opened, subtle at times throughout the show, and a few times it seemed as if it was playing in a back room accidentally, almost out of earshot, yet enough to touch our awareness. It treated the ear to the same coloring we saw on stage. There were a few sound effects, but they were so subtle as to disappear into the story.
Costumes were designed and built by Robin Armstrong with a plethora of variations on the red, white and blue theme. There were numerous costume changes that went from modern dress for political types to the most outlandish garments one could imagine for a Miss America pageant, to revolutionary era costumes from the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. Each costume was some variation on the color theme, like a nearly-hidden blue shirt under a white pants suit with a sliver of a red handkerchief. But Armstrong showed her explosive imagination with those costumes for Miss Georgia, a couple you have to see to believe. Suffice to say, costuming was one of the great highlights of this show.
If you’re looking for The Taming’s connection to Shakespeare, look no further than the character names, Patricia (for Petruchio), Bianca, and Katherine (Kate), each with a hint of The Bard’s version of character, yet feminized by Gunderson into powerful women who could imagine changing history. Any suggestion of Shakespeare’s sexism disappeared with this version.
Katherine Chelsea Hartford from Georgia wants to be Miss America and she needs a cause. What better way than to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. Liz J. Millea was Katherine, as well as Martha (Washington) and Dolley (Madison), and a surprise guest from our Revolutionary history. Of course Katherine needs help, so she kidnaps two Washington insiders, one a powerful Aide to a Conservative Georgia senator and the other a young liberal blogger with a penchant for protecting small endangered rodents. Miss Millea was a head taller than her fellow actors, a buxom blonde in her Katherine wig, made even more striking in her many lavish costumes. She lit up the stage with her costume and her presence. She’s a capable physical actor who struck poses in each of her characters which were unique, funny, and eye-catching, but who also could impose her will anytime she wanted, especially to separate her prisoners. She is a good singer, as well, with several quick solo songs, and her comic timing and phrasing perfectly conveyed the humor in her text. There was no need for embellishment. She committed to the text and it delivered the goods, with a constant stream of smiles and laughter.
Lauren Ferebee played Bianca, the strong feminist from the extreme liberal left. As an ideologue counter to the conservative Patricia, she carries the flame for the endangered pygmy shrew – as in Taming of the Shrew. As blogger, could be nearly violent, walking a fine line between peace-loving liberal on one hand and ready to strangle her conservative opponent on the other. Part of her motivation was revealing some secrets about a conservative Senator which led to some revealing secrets about her own story. It was interesting, then, when Ferebee took on the personality of Charles Pinckney during her dream sequence in 1787. He was the man who was the cause of compromise that begat the Electoral College and a continuation of slave ownership for another eighty years. Ferebee’s flip-flop of character motivation showed a different side of her acting chops and led to a softened stance when she returned as Bianca in the present day. Her violent verbal outbursts against Patricia reminded one of our recent primary contests and revealed, perhaps a bit ashamedly, how we all felt during those. The humor in Ferebee’s text and her commitment to allow it to play out made it possible to laugh about it, while also provoking self-reflection.
Lisa Fairchild played Patricia, the staunch conservative with a bill to pass and a Senator to protect, from himself. In this role, she was Petrucio, who at first seemed ready to subjugate all liberals and women to their rightful place at the bottom of society. Her frustrations with being captive, without her Blackberry, and trapped with a flaming liberal gave Fairchild lots of opportunity to explore her emotional range, as well as some physical comedy. She took on the persona of James Madison during the dream sequence, who tried to end slavery and champion the rights of the people, but had to compromise to get votes. This too was a flip-flop in character motivation and Fairchild made this shift very smoothly. When Patricia returns after the 1787 dream, that ultra-conservative had discovered the Founding Fathers were imperfect men doing an imperfect job and the Constitution was not quite so sacrosanct. And, so there was compromise and Fairchild softened her stance with Bianca and Katherine.
The Taming was part political satire, a flaming farce, and a bit of commedia. There might be some parts where the text got a bit preachy for some people, but it seems in the climate of our current election cycle, it was a refreshing look at the hyperbole and histrionics of our current political climate. Because of an outstanding cast, a really interesting thematic design focus on the red, white and blue, and some excellent direction, this play will expand the thinking of most viewers and stretch the laugh muscles to the max. It is laugh-out-loud comedy at its best. And, in the end, the shrew will be saved.
Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through September 17th
Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm.; Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm.
Tickets for Thursday evening and Matinees are $25-$33.Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $30-$38. Check website for various discounts. For information and tickets visit http://www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040.