Ariana Manghera poses downstage left, one hand on a narrow hip, shoulders righteously aligned.
It’s two weeks until opening night, and she’s not in full Miss Georgia beauty queen regalia yet. Neon pink socks tucked into glittery silver pumps and a long navy rehearsal skirt hint at the feminine restrictions she’ll have to work around.
“Here’s how it looks from the outside,” Manghera drawls, tossing her honey blonde hair. In character now, she turns first to the conservative senator’s aide.
“You are the biased, mud-stuck, non-rational, fear-breeding government.”
She pivots to the liberal would-be journalist.
“You are the gossip peddling, ego-fed obsession with the miniature issue.”
Manghera spins to face the empty audience. “We represent the triumvirate of the grand and fearful dumbing of America. But we can also beat it.”
“The Taming,” a funny, wordy, irrationally hopeful play, kicks off the 2019-20 theater season at Edgewood College next weekend. Running through Sept. 21 in the Diane Ballweg Theatre, a black box stage in The Stream, it stars three talented, hard-working sophomores.
It’s like a little taster before “Hamilton” opens in Madison in November, and it just might hit the same poli sci sweet spot Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” found on Broadway this past season.
Inspired by Shakespeare mostly in name, “The Taming” is a comedy by Lauren Gunderson, the Bay Area-based author of “The Book of Will” (now at American Players Theatre) and “Silent Sky,” previously at Forward Theater.
Like “Hamilton,” “The Taming” taps into the drama of white-wigged Founding Fathers shouting at each other while they attempt to compromise. And like Anaïs Mitchell’s epic folk opera “Hadestown” with its references to building a wall, Gunderson’s four-year-old comedy matured into its moment.
“Somehow the culture has caught up to the play,” said Jake Penner, a rising young director brought in as a guest at Edgweood. Penner’s recent credits include “Skeleton Crew” with Forward Theater and assistant directing “Blood Knot” at American Players.
“The Taming,” he said, “has matured in the last couple of years in a way that I don’t necessarily know resonated back in 2015 when it premiered,” Penner said. “The issues were present at the end of the Obama administration, but they’ve been amplified over the last couple of years.
“Voter disenfranchisement, issues with the electoral college, have taken center stage in our political discourse lately. The inability to engage with one another in an intelligent and coherent manner ... I’ve never seen it at the fever pitch that it is now. And that is essentially what the play is about.”
Veronika Bienvenu-Neville, a psychology/theater double major at Edgewood, plays Patricia, a tough-as-gel-nails aide who “does everything but blink” for a conservative Georgia senator.
Jade Proctor, a political science major, plays her liberal nemesis. Bianca is an enthusiastic, muckracking blogger on a campaign to save the (fictitious) pygmy pandashrew.
Katherine, played by Manghera, decides to, ah, convince these two women to work with her on a new plan for the country’s future. A devotee of James Madison and his promise of a more perfect union, Miss Georgia has decided during the Miss America pageant to change her platform from “sunglasses for babies — their little eyes!” to “rewriting the Constitution.” This girl’s got more flags than a Trump rally and more binders than Leslie Knope.
“The Taming” is a farce, and Gunderson’s lines are often extremely funny (“I am an American under 30, and I have a right to a phone!”). Penner worked with the students to make the movement feel natural to them while keeping an eye on clarity and balance in the storytelling.
“Neither viewpoint is immune in this play,” he said. “Both sides of the aisle have their representative in the story and I think Lauren (Gunderson) has made it very clear that neither is perfect. ... You find her arguing both sides, and you have the third character standing between them saying, ‘Both of you are wrong. We need to find a new way entirely.’”
Working on Gunderson's “musical social studies dream” has felt personal to the actors. Both Menghera and Proctor want to go to law school.
“I spent my summer interning at the Capitol,” Proctor said. “I understand why Bianca is skirting around government, because it’s so hard to get things done. People wouldn’t listen — my Rep had to, like, scream in a room full of men to get them to even look at her.”
“My character, she’s fighting both of them,” said Bienvenu-Neville. “But eventually she comes around.
“That gives me hope that there are people that will do that, will try to collaborate to make this country better, will put aside individual beliefs for the greater good.”