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If political correctness is the enemy of creativity, there’s a pretty droll skirmish going on at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston in the form of Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” (through Nov. 10). In the Santa Monica-based Native American dramatist’s satire, four white “teaching artists” — armed with variously earmarked grant monies and their own dramaturgical ambitions — set out to “devise” a theater piece, aimed at school children, that will both celebrate the national holiday and pay tribute to Native American Heritage Month. Alas, the group is too painstakingly “woke” from its bed of privilege to produce a turkey, much less a child-friendly historical hit.
Of course FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation of South Dakota, is well aware that the 1621 dinner party thrown by the Pilgrims for members of the Wampanoag nation was followed by a dessert of genocide. So too are her dramatis personae, whose sensibilities, combined with more good intention than talent, lead to a sort of paralysis. Really, FastHorse — who says she has had plays rejected by theater companies on the grounds that they had no Native American actors and were averse to presenting white players in “redface” — is lampooning theatrical tiptoeing as much as she is political correctness. Children’s theater takes a few licks too.
Fortunately, director Scott Edmiston understands that the secret to FastHorse’s satire is not to overplay or make fun of it. The characters in the Lyric’s production, except when acting out the ridiculous if slightly horrific Thanksgiving-pageant scenes interpolated into the material, are wincingly open and sincere, occupying their colorful classroom rehearsal space (the sunny set is by Janie E. Howland) as reverently as if it were the Moscow Art Theatre.
Director Logan, a failed actress turned high-school drama teacher, arrives with both hope and baggage, having been almost axed for an age-inappropriate production of “The Iceman Cometh” that riled parents. Also, as a vegan, she objects to Turkey Day on principle. Equally sensitive is Logan’s boyfriend, Jaxton, a street performer and yoga enthusiast who chafes under the joint yokes of white and male privilege. Then there is collaborator Caden, a third-grade teacher and closet dramatist whose twin passions are historical accuracy, no matter how boring or bloody, and having his dialogue for once emit from the mouths of adults, not babes.
The creative team is rounded out by the curvaceous if politically indifferent Los Angeles transplant Alicia, whom Logan has mistakenly cast for her ethnicity. Alas, Alicia’s Native American-ness turns out to be only as deep as her headshot, which leads to the group’s most urgent dilemma: how to produce a Thanksgiving reenactment sensitive to its indigenous participants without having any to put on stage.
FastHorse, frustrated by the aforementioned rejections by white theater companies, set out here to write a play that addresses Native American concerns while fielding a compact, totally Caucasian cast. However the devise came about, it makes for some amusingly tortuous improvisation that could send “devised” theater back to the drawing board if not the dustbin.
But the play’s characters, blind to their shortcomings and crippled by fear of offense, soldier on in their struggle to make art. (Director Edmiston compares the piece in this respect to the film “Waiting for Guffman.”) And the physically adroit Lyric cast wholeheartedly embraces its characters’ efforts. Amanda Collins is among the most natural of Boston-area actors and therefore able to bring credence to even the most comically exaggerated of roles. So her Logan is almost militantly sensitive, self-pressured and patronizing — though not above taking a lesson in feminine allure from the less ambitious Alicia (whose thespian apex has been understudying Jasmine in “Aladdin” at Disneyland).
Jesse Hinson’s Jaxton is the epitome of muscular yet meditative, self-flagellating maleness, his offensiveness antennae like goose bumps. And Barlow Adamson’s Caden is an apt synthesis of starry-eyed amateurism and teacherly tyranny. Interestingly, the men, left on their own to create a scene, hew to a mix of aggression, fakery and carnage — and neither is immune to the physical charms of Alicia. In that role, Grace Experience, striking sexy poses in her body-hugging duds, may be the funniest of all, not getting why she can’t play a Native American (“Is Lumière a real candlestick?”) and advocating blankness as the key to a happy life.
“The Thanksgiving Play,” with its implied message that white-liberal artists should approach other cultures with a bold curiosity rather than a condescending correctness, did not exactly meet my expectations. Those were more in line with the satire’s sillier if more brutal interpolated scenes, which include a Pilgrim takeoff on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and a musical number in which a quartet of felt-costumed turkeys engage in increasingly panicky preparations for the big day. But expectations can be modified, and FastHorse’s ideas about art and timidity add up to both a good roasting and food — maybe meatier than vegan — for thought.
“The Thanksgiving Play” continues at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Nov. 10.
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