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Fractured, feminist and factional, 'The Taming' puts politics in its place

Leave it to the Brazen-Faced Varlets to find the perfect all-American prelude to the "Hamilton" juggernaut arriving in town next month.

Their energetic production of Lauren Gunderson's "The Taming" gives Buffalo audiences a different sort of lesson in U.S. history, dissecting today's fractured and factional politics without musical numbers or taking sides, but with plenty of pointed humor. And, as with the Broadway blockbuster, "The Taming" reminds us that political disagreements are far from a 21st century invention.

Gunderson based her play loosely on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Instead of one defiant daughter, she gives us two entrenched sides, Red State and Blue State, embodied by a long-suffering conservative Senate aide, Patricia, and a young liberal blogger, Bianca, who boasts of 2 million followers. The two opposing forces are brought together by a deliriously well-focused Miss Georgia, who is scheming to create national unity as her part of the Miss America talent competition.

Jennifer Fitzery is ferociously grounded as Patricia, the stalwart government functionary who has subjugated herself to the service of a man who is her lesser. She does the work, he gets the votes, and she tries to make sure he doesn't have to answer tough questions, like how to spell anything.

Emily Yancey, recently seen in bawdier roles in "Philosophus" and "Killer Rack," shows off less of her bosom and more of her exceptional brain as feminist eco-warrior Bianca, who considers herself a "Trusader" on a quest to save the nation's smallest mammal from development-induced extinction.

The two are unwillingly brought together through their unintentional ingestion of some modern pharmaceuticals, and when they come to, they discover they are — bizarrely — at the mercy of Miss Georgia, a flag-waving caricature of mindless pageant patriotism.

Oh, but this Miss (Named Katherine and played as a true steel magnolia by Stefanie Warnick) is much more than a smiling mannequin in high heels. Literally wrapped in the flag for her gown, she has shanghaied Patricia and Bianca to help her achieve a goal that, unlike the other women's partisan pot-stirring, could make an actual difference for the country.

Miss Georgia wants to rewrite the U.S. Constitution.

So, while Bianca and Patricia are freaking out about not having their phones, the determined Katherine advises them not to underestimate their chance of success.

"I'm just as smart about this s--- as a Founding Father, and I bet they took as long to get dressed as I do," she proclaims.

When Patricia snaps that she also shouldn't be underestimated because "I am not just (the senator's) aide, I AM him," Katherine breezily responds, "Which is why you're here and he's not."

They could have gone back and forth like that all night, were it not for yet another unplanned ingestion of a consciousness-altering substance that takes us to Act 2, and the year 1787. Fitzery, Warnick and Yancey return, but now they are at the Constitutional Convention, when, as Gunderson reminds us, the founders already were rewriting the rules of government, aka the Articles of Confederation.

Now playing very human versions of James Madison, George Washington and Southerner Charles Pinckney, the trio shows us in satiric detail how the competing interests of the former colonies were ground up together to produce the country's guiding document. Gunderson uses her gift for historical narrative to stave off any preachiness while making her point: The founders were people, too, and very likely intended the government they were birthing to keep "amending" itself to handle the inevitable growing pains of a new and expanding nation.

It is great fun, through a near-perfect combination of theater company, cast and playwright, under the direction of Lara D. Haberberger and with onstage help from Jessica Leigh Tokarski.

And it serves the mission of both the Varlets and Gunderson, who explained in a 2017 New Yorker interview why she writes for the stage.

“Theater is the place I go to ask the biggest questions I can think of and hash them out in human scale,” she told her interviewer.

She also said in the article she hoped others worried about the "You-S-A," as Miss Georgia calls it, might take heart from the perspective of compromise seen in "The Taming," adding, “It is a powerful thing to come together and laugh in a scary time.”

If you have 20 bucks to spare for a ticket, that power can be yours through Nov. 3.

THEATER REVIEW

"The Taming" by Lauren Gunderson

3.5 stars (out of four)

Presented by Brazen-Faced Varlets, a pointed political comedy by prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson presented by an all-female cast in the intimate theater of Alleyway's Cabaret Space, 672 Main St., Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 3. For ticket reservations, call 598-1585 or email brazenfacedvarlets@yahoo.com.

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