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A CurtainUp Review
The Thanksgiving Play

The reality is that even when history is recorded in the moment (which is rare), we need to ask, "Who is recording this? How does their past experience lead them to interpret this moment?What are they showing us? What are they leaving out? Who isn't being heard?"
— Native American Playwright Larissa Fasthorse, who has tackled this subject as a laugh out loud comedy.
The Thanksgiving Play
Margo Seibert, Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean (Photo: Joan Marcus)
As a living Native American, Larissa FastHorse brings a welcome New voice to the New York theater world. Since The Thanksgiving Play tackles our often inaccurately recorded histories, particularly as these inaccuracies pertain to the much loved November holiday. It's an activist voice, but one filtered through a comic lens.

The downside with that choice is that because The Thanksgiving Play is as laugh aloud funny as Ms. FastHorse intended some of her dialogue is drowned out by the audience's frequent eruptions into long and loud laughs. Fortunately, the play is fun and funny for most of its 90 minutes. Therefore, even if you miss an occasional laugh line, you'll still exit the Peter Sharp Theater pleasantly exhausted from laughing, and a lot wiser about the Pilgrims' 1631 Plymouth Rock famous feast to celebrate and give thanks for their safe landing. For starters, it didn't really become a family holiday until after the Civil War, when President Lincoln devised it as a means to reunite a country so long bitterly divided.

As Lincoln devised the facts about our early settlers' arrival in Cape Cod into a celebratory event that has brought families together for a sumptuous feast each November ever since, so Ms. FastHorse has devised an apt scenario to set the record straight. Her setting is the classroom of Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a high school drama teacher who along with three other well-intentioned people will collaboratively — and here we go again— devise a script for a fresh and truthful holiday school play. That's despite Logan's own sensitivity as a vegan about the annual slaughter of some forty five million turkeys.

The devisers improvise different approaches in hopes of coming up with a script that will entertain and enlighten the students — but not be too "revolutionary" to offend the parents who already disapprove of Logan's unconventional approach to plays she's previously directed.

Not so incidentally, this devised rather than conventionally scripted play must also satisfy the expectations of organizations that have funded Logan's project with grants. That includes a Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant to pay for her hiring a professional Native American actress; also the Gender Equity in History Grant, the Excellence in Educational Theater Fellowship, a municipal arts grant and the Go! Girls! Scholastic Leadership Mentorship.

As it turns out not one of the actors playing these devisers is a Native American — not even Alicia (Margot seibert), Logan's Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art Grant hire. But this actually accentuates the playwright's point about the invisibility of people like her in the theater. The foibles of this all white cast also gives Ms. FastHorse a chance to enliven and expand her play with some apt social commentary.

Of course, for these well-meaning absurd attempts to create a culturally and historically honest play to work you need actors with peerless comedic skills. Luckily this world premiere's cast makes even the most wild and wacky scenes work. They also help to keep the tendency for some scenes to wander into too drawn out Saturday Night Live episode territory to a minimum.

Jennifer Barreilles is spot on as the teacher who still harbors one-time ambitions for a Hollywood career. Greg Keller's Jaxton is also hilariously on target as a local presenter of politically correct theater pieces, though his claim to fame comes from his gigs on a street corner. Margot Seibort's Alicia is the deliciously not as dumb as she seems Hollywood thespian Logan mistook for an indigenous person.

If I had to choose my favorite among these fabulous four, it would be Jeffrey Bean as Caden the third grade teacher and the devising group's expert historian. The numerous fascinating facts he come up with (most sabotaging the idea of a truthful to history play) are pretty amazing; for example, his declaration that the first settlers actually came from Puerto Rico, and that their thanksgiving was actually a mass held to celebrate their safe arrival. Consequently what they ate was more likely to be tropical fruits instead of yams and squash.

Ms. FastHorse is also lucky to have Moritz von Stuelpnagel directing her New York debut. Von Stuelpnagel has demonstrated his knack for ratcheting up a comedy's laughs (most recently in Bernhardt/Hamlet) by helping his actors to sharpen their performance and his designers to add visual flair. This is once again on display here, especially thanks to Wilson Chin's scenery and Tilly Grimes' witty costumes, as well as the puppets for one of the play's funniest scenes.

Bean's Carden didn't mention if cranberries were really part of that first Thanksgiving dinner, so I'll plan on making my cranberry bring-along for this year's festivities. Since the playwright states in her program notes that she loves the food and being with her family part of Thanksgiving, I hope she has a good time at hers— and that she's got another play in the works. .

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The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Cast: Jennifer Bareilles (Logan), Greg Keller (Jaxton), Jeffrey Bean (Caden), Margot Seibert (Alicia). Scenic Design: Wilson Chin
Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd
Sound Design: Mikaal Sutaiman
Stage Manager: Katie Allinger
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission
Playwrght's Horizon Peter Sharp Theater
From 10/12/18; opening 11/05/18;closing 11/25/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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