"You want a shrew? I'll give you a shrew."
That's the headline above playwright Jonelle Walker's note in the program for Avant Bard's production of Tame, a play provoked by the warm reception of contemporary audiences to the treatment of women in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. No doubt, that's a promising place to begin the bashing of the patriarchy, and kudos to Avant Bard for turning over its stage to young, locally-based talent. But despite some sharply-observed writing and a cast willing to go all-in with the material, Walker's script swings for audacity and only manages to come up with anger, much of it incomprehensible in its violence. Going in I expected a drama -- watching it I increasingly became unsure whether Tame wasn't intended as a comedy of some dark kind that I (and the audience) was too clueless to get.
The time is 1960. Jill Tighe plays Cathryn, a lesbian who left small-town Texas for Smith College, lost a lover there, headed to New York City to mourn with her "tribe," found out she didn't fit in, and returns to her parents home in a rage. She prefers to be called Cat (she's got claws, you know, and isn't afraid to use 'em), and she's got a suitable number of butch accoutrements -- a Zippo to light an endless chain of L&Ms, a wifebeater under her workshirt, heavy boots, and mens jeans. Unfathomably, and distractingly, she also speaks with an affected accent that makes her sound like an exasperated, southern-fried Norma Desmond.
It takes all of thirty seconds to understand why her parents (Karen Lange and John Stange) aren't all that thrilled by her return -- even if she wasn't in mourning, it's hard to envision Cat having any sort of familial interaction that isn't set within a frame of unchecked contempt and disdain. Her younger sister Bea (Madeline Burrows), who's just leaving high school, is happier to see her, albeit with some caution. Apparently Cat's plan is to sit around her parents' house glumly chain-smoking, write angry poems, and be nasty to everyone about everything. The parents can't abide that, so while Dad goes back to his work on the rig, Mom enlists Patrick (Brendan Edward Kennedy), a local youth minister, to help set Cat right. Patrick has some fairly novel ideas about how to draw people to Jesus, and the crux of what Walker wants to say with Tame resides in how each of her characters engage with this two-faced, violent, bible-thumping psychopath. Sex and violence are provided as plot twists and characterization, overshadowing Walkers's genuinely nuanced observations on exchanges of power, gender roles, and religious hypocrisy.
The problem, at least here under Angela Kay Pirko's direction, is one of tone. Mostly set in the family kitchen, set designer Eric McMorris and costumer Danielle Preston nail the story's time and place with such precision it becomes a detriment to anyone who's watched a fair amount of B movies from the late 50s and early 60s, which Tame increasingly resembles as it progresses, especially during its incredulous second act. At one point I found myself wanting to sneak another peak at the program to see if I had somehow missed the word "comedy" in the play's description. I hadn't, so I reminded myself that no one sets out to put on a bad show. Some just turn out that way.
Tame runs through December 11 at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. Tickets run from $10 - $35, plus pay-what-you-will shows on Thursday and Saturday matinees. Get them here.
Top: Brendan Edward Kennedy and Jill Tighe in Tame. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
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