By George Basler
The great American playwright George F. Kaufman once said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” He was making the point that satire is difficult to perform, could be upsetting to an audience and is hard to market commercially.
So, it takes some gumption for BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier) to stage a full-blown satire — The Thanksgiving Play — which opened last Friday (Nov. 10) for a two-weekend run at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.
The play by Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse skewers political correctness, progressive jargon and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans in plays and movies. These are heated topics, to be sure, but the play’s tone is more humorous than provocative. While FastHorse takes shots at the well-meaning, but clueless, characters, it’s done in a way that never stings.
The BLAST production is staged with an eye to comedy. And it succeeds much of the time. The production is filled with funny moments — some subtle, some broad — and features first-rate performances by the cast, directed by BLAST Executive Director Kate Murray
The play centers on Logan (well-played by K Morgan Prikazsky), a stressed-out schoolteacher who has received a grant to produce a Thanksgiving play for elementary school students. She recruits her boyfriend (Adam Ford), a free-spirited yoga practitioner and street performer, to be part of the cast. Other cast members are a fellow teacher (Rob Egan) and aspiring playwright, who has written 62 plays, none produced, and an actress (Ilana Rose Wallenstein), whom Logan has hired under the impression that she is Native American and can provide input on traditional customs.
Alas, Logan finds out the actress only pretended to be Native American and her family’s only Thanksgiving tradition is (gasp!) watching the Kansas City Chiefs play football on television.
The clueless crew still tries to put on a play together with predictively disastrous results.
The BLAST cast shows real comic timing. Prikazsky plays the frazzled teacher in way that is consistently humorous without being over the top. Ford has funny moments as does Egan, whose fussy character grows increasingly frustrated as a detailed script that he has written keeps getting eviscerated by other cast members. Finally, Wallenstein is delightfully dizzy as the self-absorbed, and not very bright, actress who credits begin, and end, with bit parts at Disney theme parks.
Throughout the play, the characters spout drippy catch phrases to show how “enlightened” and culturally sensitive they’ve become. Logan and her boyfriend proclaim they are in “a mutually supportive” relationship.” At one point, the boyfriend urges Logan to keep insulting him so he can feel “oppression” as a white man. Prikazsky and Ford sharply play the moment.
The characters also tie themselves into intellectual knots as they try to devise a politically correct play about Native Americans when their no Native American actors in the cast. In one hilarious scene, the male characters come up with a skit to celebrate Thanksgiving by portraying an army of white settlers wiping out a Native American village. Their props include doll heads that are kicked and thrown across the stage. The scene, as directed by Murray, dissolves into chaos that is laugh-out-loud funny.
Besides taking aim at political “wokeness” and cultural ignorance, FastHorse’s play is a send-up of the pretentions of method acting and experimental theater as the characters invent increasingly bizarre scenarios for their school play. Theater buffs should get a kick out of this.
In an inventive move, FastHorse periodically stops the play’s action while videos are shown on a screen on the stage. In the videos, five actors — Wendy Germond, Andy Bailey, Sonny DeWitt, Elizabeth Hotalen and Stefanie Willette — act out actual lesson plans about Thanksgiving that teachers have used in their classrooms. While well-meaning, the lesson plans are tone-deaf by today’s standards.
By holding the lessons up to ridicule, FastHorse seems to be making the point that non-Native Americans shouldn’t try to present Native American stories. While that’s debatable, these moments are painfully funny and provide some of the sharpest satirical jabs in the play.
In the end, it has to be admitted that “performative wokeness” is a pretty easy target to mock these days. Satire works best when it mocks the high and mighty who have real oppressive power, but that’s not the case with The Thanksgiving Play. As a result, the play, while funny, is not particularly challenging. It probably won’t upset anyone.
But it is funny. It is certainly funny. The BLAST production is skillfully done and certainly provides a lot of laughs. And these days, we can use the laughs.
IF YOU GO: BLAST will conclude its presentation of The Thanksgiving Play at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday (Nov.17-19) at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. All seats are $28 and may be purchased by visiting cidermillstage.com or by calling the box office at 607-321-9630.