To say that Capital Stage’s new production of “The Thanksgiving Story” is a spin on the traditional Thanksgiving tale would be like calling a devastating Great Plains tornado a little dust-up.
Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse has written a clever, biting script about the near pathological fear of liberal-minded Americans to make racial, gender and ethnic faux pas and offend people unintentionally. FastHorse sees that fear as an “insidious problem” in American theatre, in particular, and she drives her point home with her wacky characters and crackling dialogue in this play about a play.
Director Michael Stevenson, who is Capital Stage’s producing artistic director, has assembled a talented quartet of actors who shine with comic timing, pregnant pauses and at times startling physical humor. This play is an interesting and refreshing choice for the last production of Capital Stage’s 2017-18 season, which for the most part focused on the darker, sinister corners of human thought and behavior.
“The Thanksgiving Story” focuses on a troupe of mismatched performers – all white – struggling to craft a politically correct yet accurate telling of the Thanksgiving story for an audience of schoolchildren, and to produce it during Native American Heritage Month. From the start, it is clear this will be a recipe for disaster, much like trying to roast a frozen turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
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Two of the performers are a couple, of sorts – a high school drama teacher, who will be directing the show, and a street performer – who are so hobbled by political correctness that they are incapable of describing their relationship in plain English.
Logan (Jennifer Le Blanc), the teacher, is a vegan repulsed by the thought of celebrating “the holiday of death.” Meanwhile, her own head is on the chopping block after 300 parents signed a petition calling for her firing after she produced “The Iceman Cometh” – Eugene O’Neill’s drama about dead-end alcoholics, prostitutes and a saloon – with a cast of 15-year-olds.
“To get the parents back on your side, you need to kill a turkey,” street performer Jaxton (Cassidy Brown) advises his significant other. Jaxton presents the director with a sentimental, good luck gift – a water bottle made, he explains, with recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.
Jaxton sees himself as a true artist who dismisses Los Angeles as merely the center of the “commercial acting world.” He prefers to perform at the neighborhood farmer’s market for tips tossed into a coffee can.
They are joined by two others: Caden (Jouni Kirjola) the straight-laced, by-the-book elementary school history “specialist” and self-described amateur actor. He takes his history literally and views creative license as a license to desecrate the truth. “Facts are facts,” he says at one point. “They don’t loosen or tighten. They just are.”
The fourth character – Alicia (Gabby Battista) – is a sexy, dimwitted Hollywood actress whom Logan hired because she needed to cast at least one Native American to comply with the terms of a valuable grant. But, it turns out, Alicia is not Native American, she only looked that way in her headshot. (“I’m English and French and a little Spanish, we think.”)
Alicia doesn’t see the problem. “The point is, we’re actors. We act. That’s the job. Is Lumiere (from “Beauty and the Beast”) a real candlestick?”
All four actors are delightful as they workshop in ernest to write and produce a play that will not be offensive politically – or dramatically. Try as they might to avoid gender roles, at one point the men go off to write and rehearse a battle scene, while the women consider a dream sequence. And for much of that time, Battista’s Alicia instructs Le Blanc’s Logan in the sensual art of the hair flip.
Le Blanc and Brown are painfully progressive as they dance around – sometimes literally – sharing what they call their “mutually respectful relationship.” And Kirjola and Battista are particularly entertaining as Kirjola plays the nerdy bookworm trying to flirt with the attractive actress.
For her part, Battista makes no pretenses about her intellect or looks: “Look, I’m not that smart. No really, I’m not. I’ve been tested. But I know how to make people stare at me and not look away.”
Justin Muñoz’s precise and detailed set of a high school classroom, complete with a “No Cellphones” sign and light blue recycling basket, is realistic enough to trigger plenty of bad memories among audience members. And Rebecca Redmond’s costumes are spot on, from Logan’s long sweater and Jaxton’s natural fibers to Caden’s large, black-rimmed glasses and Alicia’s skin-tight jeans and stylish accessories.
Amidst the humor and dramatic exercises, playwright FastHorse’s veneer of serious concern about white privilege, class status and sexual politics resonates.
After Logan derides and offends Jaxton yet again about his street performer status,” he calls her jab “a profound gift. Do you know how hard it is for a straight white male to feel ‘less than’ in this world? I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt it in my life.”
The Thanksgiving Play
☆☆☆ (Three stars)
What: The California premiere of a satire that follows four well-meaning white performers attempting to write a politically correct Thanksgiving play for a school audience during Native American Heritage Month. Written by Larissa FastHorse. Directed by Michael Stevenson.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 22.
Cost: $28-$40, including discounts for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-995-5464 or capstage.org
Running time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission