A Songful Satire of Thanksgiving

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents ‘The Thanksgiving Play’ by MacArthur Fellow, playwright Larissa FastHorse.

By - Apr 28th, 2021 05:02 pm
The Thanksgiving Play. Photo from the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

The Thanksgiving Play. Photo from the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

When you see the title of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s current show – and its last virtual offering before live theater returns — your first thought might be that MCT has sure screwed up its calendar. Seems even more likely when you learn The Thanksgiving Play is about socially committed white educators rehearsing a November 20 play for elementary school children celebrating the annual feast where we borrow the food and trappings of the indigenous people we Americans killed.

Of course it is a satire, available through May 23. The playwright, a 2020 MacArthur Fellow and a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation, Larissa FastHorse, is taking brutal aim in this 2018 off-Broadway work at well-meaning modern theater and white society, and their attempts to be gender neutral, vegan conscious and language discerning while constantly trying to avoid ethnic stereotyping and in so doing falling into constant contradictions and societal tangles.

Even the “Injuns” would find this laughable, and FastHorse certainly uses that word – and every other derogatory term followed by a white apology — to make us chuckle at her witty ear.

Except the comedy has nothing but dunces at play. As would-be witty as some of FastHorse’s setups are, the actors are trying to generate humor and character out of thin air or the slenderest connections. Satire needs some grounding in reality. But there are no people here, just stereotypes.  New stereotypes, perhaps, in our supposedly “woke” society, but oh-so- easy and obvious to impale.

Director Laura Gordon, a fine actress herself, wastes a lot of effort on polishing comedy timing in a vacuum and uses the play’s own reference to “tired children’s songs” as a framework – demeaning ditties for scene changes. The entire cast can sing, which helps pass the time though the songs have scant relation to the rest of the maneuvers.

The actors read and gesture their roles sincerely. Eric Schabla is the self-proclaimed yoga intellectual. Torrey Hanson, a veteran of many companies, is the grade school teacher who wants to be a “dramaturge” with all the highfalutin airs that title suggests. Kelsey Brennan, a veteran of the American Players Theatre, satirizing all the ingénue parts she has ever played, tears about as the uptight director who decides that emptiness of action may be the best solution, in effect killing the indigenous people all over again.

And curiously enough, the audience will probably like best Hannah Shay as the sex-object actress willing to play any ethnic type laid before her, bringing a frighteningly calm complacency to her part.

Thanksgiving is so ripe a spoof for cultural irony that it creates another problem for FastHorse. She can’t gallop in a joke we haven’t thought of, though the satire hits a bit harder when racism rears up. The production also suffers from not quite being Zoom and not quite being a stage farce.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

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