Review: At Fresno City College, a lukewarm ‘Thanksgiving Play’ still serves up important questions
Fresno City College nabbed the rights to Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” much sooner than you’d expect on the college level. The 2018 play is still very much in rotation at professional theaters across the country, and, in fact, the FCC production is playing at the same time as the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. There are some amusing (and thoughtful) moments to be had, but on the whole, I am lukewarm on this production. (There is one more performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the college’s Studio Theatre.)
Here’s a rundown:
The plot: This satirical comedy imagines four white people who get thrown in a room together to write a Thanksgiving play for elementary school students that corrects the myths and misperceptions surrounding our country’s most popular secular holiday. Unfortunately, there was supposed to be a Native American in that room, but things didn’t work out. Can non-indigenous people create a play that is truly authentic?
The structure: There are two threads to the play. FastHorse created a series of vignettes that present actual Thanksgiving songs, skits and activities that she found online for teachers. Actors recreate these interludes, and the content is appallingly funny. (We open with a “12 Days of Thanksgiving” song that manages to use every T-Day cliche in the roasting pan.) Interspersed with these vignettes is the narrative line of the play, which focuses on an uptight drama teacher named Logan (Aleah Muniz, who is a standout in terms of acting). She’s worried about her job after ticking off several hundred parents, and to redeem her name, she’s applied for a bunch of grants to finance the elementary school play. She brings in her boyfriend, a yoga-granola-progressive named Jaxton (Antonio Olivera), to help write the play, along with a local history teacher, Caden (William MacDonald), and a hired actor from Los Angeles, Alicia (Julia Prieto), who turns out not to be Native American.
The targets: FastHorse pokes fun in lots of ways. She skewers progressive politics (Logan, a vehement vegan, calls Thanksgiving the “Holiday of Death” because of the turkey mortality count), politically correct speech (there are jokes about trigger points), dumb actors (Alicia is roughly as smart as a boiled yam), and theatrical conventions ( dramaturgy is one of the punchlines). Most of all, FastHorse — who seems alternately bemused and exasperated by the groan-worthy tales of Pilgrims and Indians supping happily together that make up the bulk of our national mythology about Thanksgiving — mocks the loss of historical perspective in terms of the way indigenous peoples in this country were treated (and mostly massacred). We’ve forgotten the atrocities and the wholesale land grabs and instead are content to pass the pumpkin pie.
My view: Director Janine Christl finds clever ways to stage the action, particularly with the ensemble numbers, but the slapstick humor rarely reaches the kind of sustained hilarity that a play like this needs. (Even a heads-will-roll visual gag falls flat.) As for the more complex issues of colonial revisionism and the lack of indigenous voices in our cultural history, Christl’s young actors rarely connect with the material in a way that provides much of a satirical spark. The playwright spends so much time on the cumbersome process of the four characters trying to negotiate the mashing of their disparate ideas together that we don’t have much time for what I think are two far more interesting components: the wacky misconceptions we all have about Thanksgiving; and the four-headed monster of a narrative that you’d expect to emerge from the playwriting committee. Plus, we don’t get what I think of as the required “Producers” payoff: If you’re going to offer a story about a group of people writing a very bad play, you have to give us that play (or at least a portion of it), and then immerse us in its gaudy, glorious awfulness.
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The takeaway: Still, while “The Thanksgiving Play” hits some bumps, it raises interesting and relevant issues. A fact sheet handed out by cast members afterward — done in conjunction with the group Illuminative — is a thoughtful guide to the holiday. (You’re a teacher and want to dress up your students as cowboys and Indians? Don’t do it.) I, for one, will mention to my Thanksgiving table that we remember the story as it really was.