Audiences of all generations and emerging Millennial-aged playwrights should rejoice at Avant Bard’s production of DC playwright Jonelle Walker’s TAME. Avant Bard took a risky budgetary and audience development step to bring a full production of a new script by an emerging playwright likely unknown to many mainstream theater ticket buyers. Good for Avant Bard.
Walker is clearly a playwright with a roaring talent to nurture. Her script for TAME., especially the central character “with an attitude” named Cat reminded me of a favorite line from a Baby Boomer classic for those of us with that generational pull. It was Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest with this, if I recall correctly. “Rules? PISS ON YOUR FUCKING RULES!”
Much Avant Bard marketing material described TAME. as a “rejoinder” to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Several program notes provided connections to female writers from previous generations such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath. Let me write that I was immediately struck with the script’s acid tones about rootless characters out of America’s West living bleak lives as I was with early Sam Shepard. Walker knows her away around deeply caustic, self-destructive voices herself.
Directed with a searing outlook by Angela Kay Pirko is a dark menacing production that chronicles an understandably enraged, but clearly self-destructive combatant named Cat. She is a poet who has found her way back home to a small East Texas town to find herself surrounded by those who see her as a young woman needing to be somehow repaired and brought into a more controlled submissive state of mind; without highs or lows. Those who surround her including a mother, father, younger sister and an“almost” Minister of a local church.
The show is set in the early 1960’s. Cat (short for Cathryn) is in the midst of a major depression. She is grieving for the suicide of her lesbian lover. On top of that Cat’s foray in a northern college did not go well. Nor did her venture in New York City to find “her tribe” of Beat poets. When her money runs out, her “tribe” had discarded her. Home she went, with no other place to go or people to take her in. The audience first meets Cat as she paces up the dark of a kitchen, snapping a Zippo lighter, and pulling on a couple of cigarettes. She startles her mother who has awakened early. Then all Hell breaks loose.
Always on the alert with an inability to ever sit still, Jill Tighe’s Cat is full of a powerful menace. Her laughter comes out-of-nowhere, sometimes as a piercing gaggle. She has the nervous energy of one always on the edge. When she speaks her lines, it’s with the voice of someone lashing out to be noticed and have someone near-by take her pain seriously. Examples include when she says “set me free” it comes with a real despair to it. “I am being myself—that’s the problem!” is a moment of clear self-revelation. Tighe is a brooding, wounded presence to be reckoned with. I wanted to reach out and somehow soften her pain.
As Mama, Karen Lange gives a performance full of manipulative behaviors, and outright delivery of words that are as powerful as any physical punch. The adage that sticks and stone can break bones, but words can never hurt, are bullshit when Mama speaks to hurl lightning bolts of verbal vengeance.
Younger sister Bea, as played by Madeline Burrows, is a prim, prissy, self-absorbed presence on stage. Then again, she has reason to be since she is not as proper and prudish as first thought. She may be a regular church goer, but we come to learn why she finds church attendance sometimes she likes to do.
John Stange is Daddy. He is a ringer for that laconic, Marlboro man-type from old Marlboro cigarette ads of days gone by. Stange may speak plenty of “hug” lines, but his is a truly a complex man who clearly loves his family, but has an oil-rig job that takes him away from home for long periods of time. If he had sons who acted out, he would probably strike them, but with daughters, he is at a loss to know how to discipline so he leaves it to Mama.
Then this is the “almost” minister Patrick. Well, Brendan Edward Kennedy nails it as a genial, charismatic charlatan with a deep past. He is a man with a hidden hot-headed temper that is sparked by Cat’s relentless nature that comes with his line “I am not finished speaking.” Let’s just say that saving Cat for Jesus seems to have any number of other meanings and with is abusive aspects, purifying is not a first thought. Let me use a more contemporary notion, the character Patrick if he lived now, would be way too easy to provoke with a quick Tweet.
The design team for TAME. included Set Designer Eric McMorris with his battered, dusty look of the home the show occupies. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo makes moods galore especially during the various scene changes thru brown-out. Costume Designer Danielle Preston totally hits the mark for the early 1960’s time period of prim women’s fashions for Bea and Mama. Needless to say, Cat is more a jeans type. Props Designer Becky Mezzanotte outfits the set with lots of carefully placed details including bloody sheets that represent major motifs and a white dress that takes on a life of its own.
Special kudos to Violence/Fight Choreographer Danny Cackley with a production that demands slaps, punches, and plenty of stage assaults that cross the genders. Sound Designer Mehdi Raoufi moves scenes changes with wonderful selected music that includes gospel songs from both church hymnals and pop voices.
TAME. is for anyone interested in the future of theater. At times it comes across as an angry screed. But, so what? It is an opportunity to take in a new generation’s sense of the world.
TAME. is bracing, cruel, and rebellious. It will raise hackles as it taps into issues of repression and restrictions. It has physical assaults and raw emotional outcries that might scare some. I do suspect it will become a touchstone for many.
Running Time: Approximately, two hours, with one intermission.
TAME. plays through December 11, 2016, at Avant Bard performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘TAME.’ Part 1: John Strange by Joel Markowitz.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘TAME.’ Part 2: Brendan Edward Kennedy by Joel Markowitz.
Meet the Cast of Avant Bard’s ‘TAME.’ Part 3: Jill Tighe by Joel Markowitz.