The broader examinations between comedy and tragedy assert that comedy is tragedy plus time. In a more individual sense comedy can arise from personal trauma that leaves you the option of either destroying yourself or trying to find a laugh in it. Playwright Larissa FastHorse was inspired by a challenge she saw in modern American theater in terms of casting Native Americans and the gross historical misapprehension of the Thanksgiving holiday that is especially troubling for Native Americans. She said in a recent interview with Gina Weber at TheaterJones.com: “Casting was a constant problem in our [American theater]. People would say your plays are uncastable because they had Native American characters in them. Which isn’t true, but there we are. I kept coming up against that again and again [and] I was really appalled at how difficult this holiday is and how much of a lie it is. It obviously became a really fruitful place for me to write about.” So to get around these perceptions, she created “The Thanksgiving Play”, (now showing at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St, Dallas, TX 75226, through Dec 1st) which centers around a suburban elementary school teacher trying to put on a children’s play for both Thanksgiving and Native American History Month with all white actors. The play combines a theatre of the absurd motif with a Christopher Guest-esque satire. Like most of Guest’s work, the laughs are frequent and as much a spasmodic release of the awkward tension built in the narrative versus relying on punchlines.
A truly ensemble cast, each character struggles in diametrically opposed ways with the challenge before them. Kelsey Milbourn plays Los Angeles based actor Alicia, who relies on her sexuality and vapidness to easily navigate a life without complication or anxiety. Her opposite is the hyper-stressed director of the children’s play, Jenny Ledel as Logan, who is constantly questioning what she can and cannot say and do. Ben Bryant as Caden, a theater and history obsessed elementary school teacher, is the straight man of the ensemble. FastHorse uses the Caden character to interject the ridiculousness of the common understanding of the Thanksgiving holiday. Lastly, Garret Storms plays Jaxton, a street actor, yoga instructor and Logan’s boyfriend, who swerves abruptly between extreme levels of perceived cultural sensitivity and brusque lecturing.
Undermain Artistic Director Bruce DuBose directs “The Thanksgiving Play” and keeps the play moving quickly, allowing the actors to express and explore their contradictions rapidly — and honestly if there were too many pauses in this play it would quickly turn into a tragedy. The costume design by Amanda Capshaw, scenic design by Robert Winn lighting design by Steve Woods and sound design by Rob Menzel add to the immersive feel of being in an elementary school theater and keep us focused on the characters’ struggle. Danielle Georgiou’s choreography helps build and release the tension between the characters and audience.
All of these characters are striving to some degree to be modern “woke” white folks, and to we see the futility in perfecting that state: this is FastHorse’s clear intention. As she says in an interview with Victoria Myers in The Interval: “let’s all make this mistake together, let’s all be ridiculous together, and then that gives us somewhere to go.” The play is a feast of flawless satire with incredibly deft acting and direction with the added bonus of puncturing our pretensions about both history and the thing that we call culture. You shouldn’t miss the chance to dig in.