Review: The Thanksgiving Play by Different Stages at the Vortex, Austin
by Michael Meigs
-- For this 2021 Thanksgiving season Norman Blumensaat's Different Stages company elected to stage Larissa Fasthorse's The Thanksgiving Play, a waggish four-actor satire that had the opening night audience roaring with laughter and delight throughout its uninterrupted presentation.
-- Second, the production is the normally busy Different Stages' return to live performance after the terrible COVID interruption, prepared with careful precautions for a thoroughly vaccinated and masked audience.
-- And this review, written to the sounds and agreeable smells of a traditional family celebration being prepared, goes up at CTXLT on Thanksgiving Day, 2021.
A triple win!
Playwright Fasthorse, of the Sicangu Lakota people, is quoted in the program. "As an indigenous person of this country, ninety-nine percent of what is given me as history is not only missing millions of voices but is blatantly wrong. [. . .] When I started this play, I had the same reservations about the traditional Thanksgiving story that many of us share." Coming from an indigenous American, that use of "reservations" jumps out, even though the double meaning probably wasn't intended. Fasthorse declares that she loves the holiday, though, and she was determined to make this piece a comedy.
Why was the audience around the Vortex's Eloise Brooks Cullum stage carried away with laiughter?
In part because of the gags when elementary school theatre teacher Logan (Chiara McCarty) works at devising a "pilgrims and indians" show for a primary school audience; partly because her partner Jaxton (Luke Wallens), a would-be buddhist, is so foolishly sincere. A goofy, excitable and frustrated-playwright history teacher by the name of Caden (Greg GInther) proposes impossible scenes-- a pilgrim-and-indian exchange full of double entendres; a first Thanksgiving in St. Augustine when the Spanish arrived; bedraggled crossers of the Rio Grande celebrating survival. Alicia (Cassandra DeFreitas), the professional actress hired in hopes of validating interpretations, is instead a sweetly simple-minded mongrel mix of ancestors without a drop of indigenous blood. These are quirky caricatures who inevitably clash, rebound, and richochet about Gary Thornberry's convincing set design for an elementary school classroom. Logan occasionally grabs up a bullhorn to make herself heard or a broomstick to push apart overexcited arguers.
Absurdity prompts laughter, and there's plenty of that, but so does nervousness and a fundamental uncertainty about the acceptability of one's own views. Many in the audience were theatre folks who over the last couple of years have been facing the same hesitancies portrayed by Fasthorse in exaggerated form: #METOO, LGBQT, BIPOC, overbearing directors, insensitive company managements, restive audiences, and the challenges of—as my Alabama cousins used to say—simply holding their mouths right. This quartet of characters, made up of three clueless but well-meaning theatre types and DeFreitas's wide-eyed, innocent playgirl, has the impossible task of devising a non-offensive interpretation and performance of historical events deeply disputed across the ramparts of the country's sharply divided popular cultures. No wonder the theatre folks in the audience were in stitches. Or, perhaps better put, they laughed until they cried!
And there's the happy trigger of laughing at exaggerated stereotypical versions of ourselves. Look, for example, at the wild popularity across Texas, especially in community theatres, of the Greater Tuna comedies of Sears & Williams, the Great American Trailer Park musicals by Nehls & Kelso, and the redneck-and-Southern-fried farces of Jones, Hope, and Wooten (6,500 productions and still counting!). The Thanksgiving Play provokes the same sort of giggles and guffaws, as Fasthorse adroitly avoids both stinging accusation and comeuppance.
Director Melissa Vogt keeps the action popping (loved that completely unexpected hip-hop scene). All four actors are lively and attractive, and Vogt keeps the ensemble just inside the bounds of believable. The eventual outcome of the main action—the decision on exactly what type of performance to offer—is a bit of an anticlimax, especially when one recalls the grinning, empty-brained nonsense of the opening song, but it's a gentle acknowledgement that no one, anywhere, is going to get the story of Thanksgiving exactly right.
Our assignment, should we wish to accept it, is to enjoy both the holiday and the play. The Different Stages gang makes that easy to do.
November 19 - December 11, 2021
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
November 19 – December, 11, 2021
Tickets $15, $25 $35 Wednesday through Sunday
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 6 p.m. No performance on Thanksgiving Thursday November 25. Added performance Wednesday December 8.
Tickets are: $15, $25 $35 on Wednesday through Sunday.
The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd, Austin
For tickets and information call 512-478-5282