It’s tempting to call Jon George’s new play, “Crazy Horse and Custer,” a dramatic reading with costumes and props. That would imply the world premiere at the Sacramento Theatre Company’s intimate Pollock Stage was in fact dramatic. It is not.
Of course, the characters Crazy Horse, who tells us that his name literally translated really should be “His Horse Is Crazy,” and Col. George Armstrong Custer, who allows he graduated last in his class at West Point, have intertwined legacies that culminated in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876 in eastern Montana Territory.
Like a diorama come stiffly to life in the progress of the play, they give laborious accounts of their divergent backgrounds, which ultimately lead to the shared destiny.
Playwright George seems intent on humanizing these outsized figures of American history, but the two-character production is so static and the nominal story so still that you could attend a tax code lecture with more animation. The author in a playbill message writes that he has written “neither myth nor is it history,” but “an entertainment.” If only it were so. Despite the best efforts of actors Louie Leonardo as Crazy Horse and Kirk Blackinton as Custer, the production boxes the audience into two long autobiographical stories with no conflicts, revelations or resolutions.
The actors are rarely on the stage together but instead address the audience directly, speaking from beyond the grave as if to set the record straight about what we don’t know about them.
Leonardo has the tougher job as he is saddled with the stoic, humorless Crazy Horse, who painstakingly recounts his life as a young mystic and warrior in training, a man “who could explain the unexplainable to those who could not.”
The extant legend of Crazy Horse is that of a visionary whose supernatural aura was a protection in battle. George transposes this into a more studied behavior calculated to unnerve adversaries.
He also informs us there is no room for criticism because he has “consciously reconstructed to fit the needs of my fancy.” There is also a heavy message coda about the sad fates of American Indians tacked on to the end. Can we say it is a long, dull slog regardless of his best intentions?
Crazy Horse mostly wants to be left alone as an existential thinker and thoughtful observer of the superficial beings around him. The “white man” comes in for lot of condemnation, but Crazy Horse’s American Indian peers don’t really measure up in his estimation, either.
Custer, on the other hand, is the brighter, more lively personality, and he knows it. To hear him tell the story, he could have been a presidential contender if things had fallen right. The Little Big Horn miscalculation naturally figures prominently.
The idea of these well-known American characters shown in intimate relief to one another has potential, yet the play seems to have gone from inspiration to production without development or dramaturgy.
New plays are tremendously important for the lifeblood of theater, and notoriously difficult to pull off. Director Michael Laun’s ineffectual production shows just how hard they can be to make work.
CRAZY HORSE AND CUSTER
* * What: Sacramento Theatre Company world premiere of Jon George’s “Crazy Horse and Custer”