THE THANKSGIVING PLAYBy Larissa FastHorse
Directed by Bruce DuBose
Stage Manager – Marlo Mysliwiec*
Sound Design – Rob Menzel
Technical Director – Kenneth Bernstein
Choreographer – Danielle Georgiou
Lighting Design – Steve Woods
Scenic Design – Robert Winn
Costume Design – Amanda Capshaw
Properties Design – Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Logan – Jenny Ledel
Jaxton – Garret Storms*
Alicia – Kelsey Milbourn*
Caden – Ben Bryant
Reviewed Performance: 11/9/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The play opens with four “Pilgrims” performing a delightfully awkward ode to Thanksgiving, to the tune of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The scene-stealing Jenny Ledel tamps down her innate grace and poise to belt out “pumpkin in a pumpkin patch” with dorky exuberance. Thereafter, the audience is intermittently treated to musical interludes from an increasingly untraditional children’s Thanksgiving pageant.
As the action begins, Jaxton (Garret Storms) sneaks in a present for his paramour Logan (Jenny Ledel). It appears to be a rainbow-tinted Mason jar with a straw insert—an aesthetically challenged affair to be sure. But once unwrapped, Jaxton hastens to explain that it is a water bottle made out of glass recycled from broken windows in housing projects. Once the object is thus reinterpreted for her, Logan is thrilled. So sets up the inadvertent silliness of these characters. They are overwhelmed with socially conscious virtue. Logan and Jaxton are guided by their devotion to political correctness, but as this play explores, what they understand as “correct” is a shifting and amorphous concept.
Logan, played with a perfect blend of dork and adorable by Ledel, bubbles over with excitement as she explains the funding that she has secured. Logan has strung together a bundle of grants to finance the writing and production of a play that is appropriate for elementary school children, celebrates Thanksgiving, and simultaneously honors Native American Heritage Month. The difficulty in realizing this mash-up of grant objectives is one element of the nearly non-stop comedy that The Thanksgiving Play delivers.
If you are thinking that Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month should not coincide, then you would be correct. The award-winning playwright of the Thanksgiving Play, Larissa FastHorse, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation. As Undermain’s Director Bruce DuBose explains in his Director’s Notes, FastHorse has “created a way for us to examine the plight of Native Americans through their very absence.” FastHorse has authored a play in which the characters’ ignorance is converted into comedy.
Logan’s grant money covers an expensive professional actor. Jaxton, who has been assigned a corner at the Farmer’s Market to extoll the virtues of composting, assumes he would be the beneficiary of grant largesse. But Logan hired a professional, Alicia (Kelsey Milbourn), a presumed Native American who will star as a strong woman, satisfying two grant objectives.
Logan’s plan for a respectful collaboration honoring Native American Heritage Month goes terribly awry. Logan, Jaxton, and Caden (Ben Bryant) repeatedly misunderstand Alicia as somehow describing Native American culture when in truth she is describing white people from Iowa. Alicia turns out to be an opportunistic actress of European descent who donned turquoise for a photo shoot. The audience understands the mistake before the characters do, and when the realization finally hits Logan, the results are hilarious. Ledel’s Logan has an epic comic meltdown, crying and flailing, finally collapsing to the cold comfort of an asthma inhaler.
Logan and Jaxton grapple at damage control, but they really “cannot escape their whiteness.” It is revealed that someone bestowed this grant money on white people who do not even know where to find an authentic actor. Why did Logan hire Alicia based only on turquoise props (one of six faux looks suggested by her agent)? It would be illegal to ask her ethnicity, Logan explains. Was Logan supposed to go door-to-door, she asks. Trying to help, Jaxton remembers that a guy in his yoga class built a sweat lodge on his deck; he learned how at Burning Man. The two learned from post-blind casting that white people can only speak for white people. But they only have four white people. At one point Logan asks, “It’s meta, so maybe it’s okay?”
Logan’s misjudgments do not stop there. She thought she could reform Alicia’s hyper-sexualization. Not a chance. Milbourn’s Alicia slinks and preens, throwing off as much female pheromones as humanly possible. Milbourn is delightful to behold as a vapid, hair-swishing minx owning every bit of her don’t-over-think-it existence. Alicia instructs Logan on how to empty her mind of all thought while staring blankly at the ceiling. Alicia’s not smart—she’s been tested—but why is that a problem? Alicia hilariously explains that, “I just don’t do the stuff I don’t want to do, and do the stuff I want to.” This play is choc-full of funny one-liners, and Alicia’s include, “No one has ever said that to me when I’ve had my clothes on.” Her claim to fame is that she was the third Jasmine understudy. At one point Jaxton asks, “Are there any non-Disney references in your life?” Apparently not.
As Jaxton, Storms is hilarious, not to mention impressive, as he turns his body into a pretzel as his character stretches into an assortment of (presumable) yoga poses. Jaxton is a man trying to reform, or perhaps disguise, himself as a being entirely bereft of toxic masculinity. But for all of his devotion to equality, enlightenment, and wokeness, he still can’t resist cheese. Logan demands to know whether Jaxton’s snack is soy cheese or (the horror!) “coagulated cheese squeezed from a cow.” More relevant to Logan than Jaxton’s diet is the effect that Alicia has on him.
Caden (Ben Bryant) is the straight-laced intellectual and designated historian. Ben Bryant is a perfect straight man. Caden is a big fan of Logan and Jaxton’s work, but as a frustrated playwright, he accurately complains that his lines could do with better acting.
One problem with Caden’s historical contributions is that Thanksgiving as we know it has little to do with historical truth, and hewing to history will definitely get Logan fired. She’s already on thin ice. For all of her success as a grant writer, a 300-parent petition demands Logan’s termination. Her sin? Producing The Iceman Cometh with fifteen year-olds.
When Logan suggests that Caden and Jaxton pair up for collaboration while she and Alicia work together, Jaxton objects to the gender-based pairing, to which Logan immediately quips that deliberately avoiding the gender-based pairing, allowing gender to control, is equally problematic. As it turns out, the gender-based pairings do in fact distill down to type: Jaxton and Caden recreate a violent rampage while Alicia gives Logan a sexy makeover. This play is great fun.
The set marvelously recreates a visually interesting, yet physically forlorn, space in a public education building. The floor is a spot-on reproduction of speckled floor tiles. Theater posters advertise productions for Guys and Dolls, One Acts, The Miracle Worker, Anything Goes, and the ill-fated Iceman Cometh. The room is even outfitted with a metal file cabinet and a transparency projector (precursor to the PowerPoint).
The cast’s street clothes are well-suited as an expression of each character. The costumes for the musical numbers are perfectly humorous, and include life-sized turkey suits that favor Thanksgiving turkey caricatures rather than the actual fowl.
The Thanksgiving Play is particularly adroit in mocking pseudo-intellectual pretensions. All four of the actors do a phenomenal job with the searing satire. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to enjoy ninety minutes of laughter, with food for thought.
The Undermain Theatre
November 6 through December 1, 2019, all evening performances at 7:30 p.m., Sunday Matinees at 2:00 p.m. on 11/10, 11/17, 11/24, 12/1.
The Undermain Theatre
3200 Main Street, Dallas, TX 75226
For information and Tickets call 214 747-5515 or go to undermain.org.