by Carol Rocamora
“Let’s put on a play!”
How many times have we heard those words uttered in our line of business – right?!
But rarely have they delivered the gleeful entertainment offered by The Thanksgiving Play, Larissa FastHorse’s screwball satire that opened last night at Playwright’s Horizons. A new voice in the theatre is exciting, especially when it inspires laughter and at the same time tells the truth.
The scene is an elementary school classroom. A quartet of so-called “theatre artists” have assembled to put on a play. There’s Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a wannabe actress who spent six discouraging weeks in LA and then made a new career choice – she’s now a grade-school theatre director. There’s Jaxton (Greg Keller), her partner, a street performer and yoga enthusiast. There’s Caden (Jeffrey Bean), a history teacher and aspiring playwright, who dreams of hearing his words uttered by actors over the age of nine. And finally, there’s Alicia (Margo Siebert), a self-proclaimed stage and screen actress who specializes in “being simple” and playing any role whatsoever.
This motley crew has been given a grant to develop a play in honor of National Heritage Month, specifically for elementary school children. This inspires Logan, the director, who is determined to create “something revolutionary in elementary school theatre that breaks down the myths and legends of Thanksgiving… in 45 minutes!” They agree: “You can’t reach new lands till you get to the shore!” And with that metaphor in mind, they launch into a series of earnest (and hilarious) theatre exercises, meditations and improvisations to inspire the collective muse.
From that point on, the satire shifts into high gear. Alicia, who has been hired because she’s allegedly Native American (as per terms of the grant), reveals that, in fact, she isn’t. To make up for her deception, she offers, in earnest, a creative idea that comes from her own family Thanksgiving tradition: “Frozen Turkey Bowling.” The suggestions keep coming, fast and furious: Letters of apology from the grade-school students to the Indians? An imaginary Native American character onstage?
As they collaborate, they stage intermittent scenes, one more off-the-wall than the next. First, they sing an introductory song that goes “On the first Day of Thanksgiving, the natives gave to me….” Then they put on a preposterous puppet show featuring Pilgrims and Indians. They also rehearse a scene where the heads of four turkeys get shot off by a giant rifle. (There’s an outrageous massacre-of-the-Indians scene that is so politically IN-correct that I daren’t describe it here). None seems to do the trick.
In the end, this motley but well-meaning crew come up with a shared artistic vision for their play that had our audience on the floor convulsed with laughter– and I’m sure yours, too.
The brilliance – and delight – of The Thanksgiving Play is that it functions on two levels – both as a sharp satire on political correctness and a serious farce that lampoons the hypocrisy of American mythology and exposes the true exploitation of Native Americans. At the same time, this playful play is poking fun at the theatre and the creative process.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs with the same wicked sense of humor and mischief that he brought to the hilarious Hand To God two years ago on Broadway. The ensemble is terrific. Above all, kudos to Ms. FastHorse, a unique and marvelous new voice (of Native American descent), one whom we hope to hear from again and soon. She knows the secret that Oscar Wilde, master of satire, guarded so well – entertain the audience, while at the same time show them the folly of their ways. But without malice – and all in good fun.
Photos: Joan Marcus
The Thanksgiving Play, by Larissa FastHorse, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42 Street, NYC through November 25.